Birds of Blakeney and Beyond - Part 1 - Swans, Geese and Ducks
NB All my bird identifications are subject to revision if more knowledgeable sources can advise me.
I've been lucky enough to spend a few days in East Anglia in the UK, mainly at the pretty coastal resort of Blakeney in Norfolk but for a few days also at Sudbury in Suffolk. Both areas have excellent opportunities for bird photography with diverse habitats such as coastal marshes at Blakeney and the adjoining village of Cley, and water meadows with deciduous woodlands at Sudbury. I used my Canon 5D Mark III equipped with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS Mark II USM lens that I recently acquired. In addition, for most of the work I had the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III attached, giving a maximum focal length of 560 mm. Almost all the shots below were hand-held, post-processing was with Adobe Lightroom and Neat Image Noise Reduction software when required. Out of the 400 plus shots taken I had a "keeper" rate of about 15% and of those I am posting about 30 in this set of Journals. My first set comprises shots of swans, geese and some ducks.
Swans (in this case the Mute Swan - Cygnus olor) are considered the most elegant and graceful of water birds, their sinuous, serpentine necks, their great mass of white fluffy feathers and their smooth gliding though the water all adding to their aesthetic appeal. Swans also have a long history in literature and dance as symbols of beauty and sometimes tragedy. And who can forget Danny Kaye's popular song, "The Ugly Duckling" in which the said duckling is transformed into the beautiful swan? Photographically, the whiteness that is so characteristic of the swan can be a problem because although our eyes can pick out the nuances of shading and texture in the white feathers, the camera can all too easily blow such highlights giving an unsightly pure white exposure. Thus, sometimes the photographer needs to slightly underexpose the shots and needs to use the editing tools on RAW images to bring out those subtle details.
My first example is a portrait of a swan's head taken immediately after it has been foraging underwater. You can see some water droplets, its serrated lower jaw (used for filter feeding), and the dampened feathers, not entirely pristine white however! The swan, a male as it has that large black knob at the forefront of its head, is well aware of my nearby presence and has fixed me with an icy stare. Perhaps you can understand the photographic challenge of obtaining an exposure that takes in the whole tonal range from black to white.
My second swan shot, again taken at the Water Meadows in Sudbury, gives a much better impression of the subtle textures and tones in the plumage. (Incidentally, it is the same swan as in the first shot.) I quite like this image with its waves and surface turbulence indicating the swan is gliding through the water. Photographically, the keen eyed observer will note that the white of the feather has a very pale blue cast. This comes from light from a blue sky and bluish water reflecting off the feathers. Note also the almost heart-shaped arrangement of the body plumage - often emulated in ballet dancers' attire and postures.
For the third shot, I have tried to strike a more general aesthetic note with the contrast between the curves and subtle white of the swan together with the rounded ripples in the water against the stark linear reeds. A few seconds later, the swan picked up the reed floating before it and made off, no doubt, to add it to a nest.
As for geese, my shots are all of greylag geese (Anser anser) found on the marches at Cley. From looking at this first image you might think that the greylag resembles the mute swan in terms of placidity. The male serenely glides by with the female and seven goslings following in family harmony. However, geese can be noisy, vicious and very unpredictable. The second shot shows the male a few minutes before, assertively stretching its wings. A few minutes before that, accompanied by loud honking, a major altercation had taken place with this male beating off advances from a second goose. Photographically, all I could do was focus as best I could on the geese as the attack began and follow them, using continuous mode shooting, as they fought across the lake. Out of the half dozen shots I managed, only this one was sufficiently in focus to post. Yet, having studied the others, this is undoubtedly the best. Note that the two geese are effectively running over the surface of the water with clearly defined splash marks under the webbed feet. I think this is a "wow" shot showing an aspect of goose behaviour not normally caught on camera. If anyone likes to recommend this for a DD, please don't hesitate!
Ducks! The trouble with ducks is that there are lots more species floating about than you find listed in bird identification handbooks, for example the RSPB "Handbook of British Birds" Holden and Cleeves, 4th ed., 2014Bloomsbury Publishing, does not include domestic ducks used for food or their eggs such as these white ducks that I found on the River Stour in Sudbury. I think these are Pekin Ducks, but I'm not sure. The pair certainly provided a beautiful contrast on the blue water with their reflections showing amazing clarity. As with swans, capturing an image in which the whites are not blown takes careful exposure control.
We're back in familiar territory with my next example, a male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos). I've seen this pose of rising vertically out of the water many times before and I had always thought it was to do with preening and cleaning - flapping off excess water from its wings after ducking below the surface. Apparently, though, it is an alarm display and mallards are one of the few species of duck that can do this vertical rise as if standing on the water surface.
Another Great British favourite is the shelduck (Tadorna tadorna). This is yet another photographic challenge to capture adequately the full tonal and color ranges. Although in flight the shelduck appears to be black and white, when resting or on water the full range of colours can be seen, from a dark green head to that magnificent orange chest band to greens in the tail and reds in bill, feet and legs. This is a female shelduck, males having, like swans, a pronounced knob at the head end of the bill.
Finally for the ducks and this Journal, I present a shoveler (Anas clypeata). Shovelers have a similar white, black, green and orange colour scheme to the shelducks, but the obvious difference is that magnificent huge bill that it sweeps from side to side over the surface of the water filtering its food through tiny serations in the sides of the bill - a bit like swans do. This is a male shelduck, the female is more like a female mallard with predominantly brown plumage - an example of sexual dimorphism. There isd a possibility that this is a very young male as fully mature males have orange feathers rather than grey ones along the flanks.
That's it for Part 1 of this series. I've looked at some swans, geese and ducks from the marshes of Blakeney and the River Stour meadows at Sudbury. I hope you enjoyed the photographs.
David aka Okavanga