19 Feb 2015

Cracking Nutcrackers!

The diaries from my recent workshops in Bulgaria and Greece will be split into three reports, beginning with the time we spent with the fabulous Nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes). These brilliant birds are a member of the crow family (corvids) are found in Bulgaria's high altitude coniferous forests. During the winter months they form small groups and when the weather is cold and hostile (as it was during our visit) they readily come to a handout of nuts. In their haste to gather as much food as possible they squabble like mad and a strong pecking order quickly becomes apparent!

We only spent a short time with these birds (two one-hour sessions), but that was sufficient to capture a number of great behavioural images of them hopping, bouncing and sliding around in the fresh snow. The temperatures were well below freezing, as we were at an altitude of over 2000m and it was snowing for most of the time we were photographing.

As I had six other photographers with me I used only my 600mm lens, which allowed me to work from behind them without getting in the way. At such close range it wasn't easy for me to keep the birds in the frame whilst handholding such a high magnification lens, and I think even better results would have been possible with something like a 100-400mm zoom (the new version of which I have just aquired and will be thoroughly testing over the coming weeks).

Light levels were quite low, so I used ISO 1600 to allow me to set a shutter speed of 1/2000th sec at f4. The high shutter speed was necessary to freeze the movement of these very active birds. I left all focussing points active, utilising the excellent focus tracking of the 1DX to keep the birds in focus. With EOS iTR AF enabled, it's amazing how well this camera can track the subject...once you've carefully aquired initial focus on the eye of the main subject!

The image above was one of my favourites from the sequence...apart from one that I'm holding back for use in my newsletter (which will be going out next month). This action shot shows aggression, has eye contact between the birds and is nicely lit with snow being kicked up by the squabbling birds.

This was a great opportunity to take action and behavioural shots of a bird that we don't see in the UK (only as an extreme rarity) in great winter conditions. I'm already looking forward to returning during next year's workshop. My next diary entry will show some of the landscape images taken during the same trip.

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