In non-Internet Explorer related news…

The release of WordPress 2.3 is my cue to release my photoblog onto the world.

Since this blog, which is comparatively simple in terms of layout, still isn’t working properly in Internet Explorer, I shudder to think what Clouded Drab will look like. But hey-ho, let’s press on regardless. There’s only one photo at the moment, but I’ve got more queued up, so I hope you’ll check in regularly. Or of course subscribe to the RSS feed.

Site Redesign

I’m itching to do yet another site redesign—I have a pretty good idea of what I want and a working test version of it, allowing for a bit of tweaking—but I think it makes sense to wait until the release of WordPress 2.3 so I don’t have to worry about any compatibility issues. I’m considering losing the theme switcher, as well; since I make no effort to make changes to the site backwards-compatible, it’s probably better that way. And it’ll make it easier to rework things for my ultra-minimalist new look.

Of course the whole thing is increasingly irrelevant, since a growing proportion of my (diminishing number of) readers are now accessing HF through feed readers and may never see the design at all. But I enjoy the process.

I’m also intending to start a photoblog. I’ve always liked the idea of photography but found the results slightly disappointing. As a birder I know well the importance of good optical equipment; the difference between a cheap pair of binoculars and an expensive pair can be profound. I never bought a film SLR camera because I didn’t think I would get the use out of it to justify it; now with digital, knowing I can go out and shoot 50 or 60 and discard them all, it seems like a good moment to make a serious attempt to take some good photographs. So the photoblog will be part of that attempt; recording my learning process. But I can’t decide on a name for it. I could keep up the G.M. Hopkins theme and go for something like ‘Plough Down Sillion’ or ‘Shook Foil’ or ‘Finches’ Wings’, but I think I fancy a change. Hmmm. We’ll see.

New camera, same old clichés

I’ve got a new camera, so I thought I’d celebrate it in the approved internet fashion: catblogging. You can click through to Flickr to see larger versions.

This is Boris:

And this is Posy, who is a difficult cat to photograph, because she’s so black and shiny:

Fun with lenses

A couple of weeks ago when it was, briefly, sunny, I was messing around in the garden taking pictures through the magnifying glass that came with the Oxford Ludicrously Small Print Dictionary.

Apart from the optical effects of the lens, I quite like the picture within a picture thing.

Anyway. Just a bit of silliness. If you want to see larger versions, you can click through to Flickr.

Digiscoping parakeets

The parakeets only reached this part of London about three years ago, but now we have flocks of them every day; there are often seven or eight on the feeders and more in the surrounding trees. They’re attractive and full of character, but as ever with foreign species you worry about their impact on the native birds; they must be competing for nest-sites if nothing else.

Digiscoping woodpeckers

I was having a go at photographing the juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker that comes to the birdfeeder, but it’s kind of tricky. My success rate when digiscoping is never that high at the best of times; and as you can see, it’s not temperamentally inclined to stay still:

Still, the motion blur can be a fun effect:

And it makes it all the more gratifying when one of the pictures comes out just right.

Video digiscoping experiment

It just occurred to me a couple of days ago that since my digital camera has a video mode, I could try digiscoping some video. I thought it came out fairly well, considering. I just hold the camera up to the telescope, so it’s a bit wobbly, and the audio is dominated by aeroplane noise, and the YouTube conversion hasn’t improved it, but I’ll certainly consider doing it again next time I’m doing proper birding. This is a greenfinch, btw.

I wish I’d thought of it when I was in Crete, when there was a Little Crake walking backwards and forwards past the same spot over and over again but because of the difficulty of timing the shot, I mainly got lots of pictures like this:

Little Crake walking out of shot

And while I’m on garden wildlife, look what was in the basement light well. His price for being rescued was having his photograph taken with flash. There are lots of frogs and newts, but it’s a very long time since I’ve seen a toad here.

little toad

Blogger Bio-blitz #1: Ayia Lake

blogger bioblitz

On April 21st, I went birding to a reservoir near the village of Αγια, written as either Agia or Ayia in Roman characters. Ayia is about 9 km SW of Chania, the capital of the westernmost province of Crete, and the reservoir is a good spot for migrating waterbirds. The reservoir is surrounded by reedbeds and then agricultural land; the walk down to the lake goes past orange groves.

To quote the post I wrote on the day, now with some pictures: “The guide to birdwatching in Crete listed, among the possible birds for the site, Little Crake, Spotted Crake and Baillon’s Crake. I’ve never seen any of those before, but I didn’t get my hopes up because all the crakes are notoriously difficult to see; they skulk.

So I arrived and pretty much the first thing I saw? A crake! In full view! And I had one of those panicky moments of trying to put down the telescope in a controlled fashion and get a proper look at the bird and check the field guide, all at the same time, thinking I had to make use of my lucky moment, while the crake just kept pottering about at the edge of the reeds. After I’d had a long look at it and decided it was Little Crake (plain blue underside and no barring on the flanks, since you ask) I had a quick check in the other direction along the lake, and there was another one! And it became apparent that not only were they not bothering to skulk, they were extremely approachable.

male Little Crake

I can only assume that they are so tame because they’re on migration and their priority is eating furiously to get their strength up. From Africa to, say, Poland is a long way to fly for a little bird with stubby wings. I also got incredibly good views of a Little Bittern that just sat and looked at me as I approached instead of ducking into the reeds. Again, it was probably knackered from all the flying.”

female Little Bittern

All that black around the edge of the picture is vignetting from the scope. Normally I’d zoom the camera to cut it off, but the bird was so close that I’d have to cut off its feet.

Here’s the rest of the list for the day, with a few comments:

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

These finches are all residents on Crete, and may well have raised one brood already, even though the passage migrants are still heading north.

Spotted Flycatcher
European Pied Flycatcher
European Stonechat
Whinchat (below)

Whinchat

Nightingale (only heard)
Great Tit
Yellow Wagtail (the black-headed subspecies, Motacilla flava feldegg)
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Blackbird

Barn Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

sand martins and swallow
Barn Swallow and some Sand Martins resting in the reeds. Most Barn Swallows in Europe have pure white underparts; the reddish breast of the one here is typical of the eastern Mediterranean. And I’ve just learnt that what I call a Sand Martin is known as a Bank Swallow in the US, so if you were thinking they looked familiar, that might be why.

House Sparrow – the subspecies known as ‘Italian Sparrow’, Passer domesticus italiae.

Hooded Crow

Common Swift
Alpine Swift

Eurasian Coot
Common Moorhen
Little Crake

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Grey Heron
Little Egret (below)

Little Egret

Little Stint
Common Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-legged Gull

Common Kingfisher (below)

kingfisher

Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)

cuckoo

Little Grebe
Ferruginous Duck
My second lifetime tick for the day, after Little Crake. I was just settling down to a coffee (Greek, medium sugar) and saw a couple of birders intently peering through a scope at something which, when I wandered over, turned out to be a distant but definite Ferruginous Duck. It obviously pays to be nosy.

European Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon

And one non-bird:

European Tree Frog

tree frog

That barn owl bio blitz button is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is therefore available under the same licence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jennifer’s BBB buttons, but I wanted something to match my colour scheme.

A cunning plan

I just realised that my camera can screw directly on to my telescope tripod. Expect me to come back from Crete with lots of attempted panoramas.

Can you tell I’m procrastinating because I don’t want to pack?

My toy camera: the Cardcam

My post a few days ago about ‘toy cameras’ made me dig out my own toy camera. It’s not a film camera, though, like a Lomo or a Holga; instead, it’s a crappy digital camera from a few years ago. It’s somewhat in that spirit, though, as it’s a primitive point-and-shoot camera with no controls of any kind at all (and no screen – just a viewfinder).

It’s called the Oregon Scientific Cardcam and its selling point was that it’s only the size of a credit card. Which is true — at least, it’s probably about four credit cards thick, but it’s still very cool.

Unfortunately the pictures are awful. They’re 640×480 pixels, which is limiting but not the end of the world, and because of the primitive state of flash memory technology when it was made it can only hold 26 pictures. More problematic, though, is that it doesn’t work very well with subjects which are too bright, too dark, too high contrast, too close, or too far away; the focus is rarely very sharp, even given the limitations of the resolution; the colours are erratic; and there’s a distinct distortion at the corners of the pictures. I took it skiiing a couple of times as a fun camera I could take out on the slopes with me, but even on that basis the pictures were so bad it was hardly worth it. I assume, btw, that the market for this kind of camera was pretty much wiped out by the production of cameraphones.

So does my new-found appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of photographs taken with cheap cameras extend to my cardcam? Well, here’s a selection of the more attractive ones out of two ‘rolls’ of shots I took:

Bearing in mind these are the very best ones (lots are just unusable); I don’t absolutely and unswervingly hate them, but I don’t think they’re about to start a hot new trend. In terms of an embracing-the-flaws philosophy, the distortion around the edges of the pictures is probably the most interesting thing.

It was quite entertaining playing around with it, but I think it can probably go back in the drawer again now.

Digiscoping and Lomography

I was looking back at some of my old digiscoped pictures yesterday.

‘Digiscoping’ is the trick of using your birding telescope as very high-powered telephoto lens. At the simplest level, you just hold the camera up to the eyepiece and shoot through the scope; to get the best results you need more sophisticated equipment. You could do this with a film camera, of course, but it makes it a lot easier to have a screen so you can see what you’re doing, and to know that you can just delete the ones that don’t come out.

Anyway, I was vaguely wondering what they reminded me of, other than themselves.

I realised that it was ‘toy camera’ pictures. You may not have encountered this trend, but there’s a [recent?] fashion for taking pictures with very basic old mass-market compact cameras, like the Soviet Lomo, or the Chinese Holga. The poor construction of these cameras, including plastic lenses and light leaks, produce distinctive pictures with lurid colours, dodgy focus, vignetting and other technical flaws. Which sounds crap, but actually the pictures have a rough-edged immediacy which can be very attractive.

My telescope doesn’t have plastic lenses, of course. But it wasn’t designed for taking pictures, either. And my adaptor consists of the bottom of a film canister glued into the lid of a pill bottle, with a hole cut through them. It serves to keep the camera roughly in the centre of the eyepiece, but it doesn’t keep it properly lined up along the axis of the telescope or keep it steady.

When I took them, I was doing my damnedest to take the best possible pictures despite the technical limitations of my equipment. The results aren’t going to win any wildlife photography prizes, but some of them do have something of that same weird vividness that I find attractive in toy camera pictures.

This kind of lo-fi aesthetic probably doesn’t appeal to everyone. But I might as well enjoy it in my own pictures. Not that I feel defensive about them; I enjoyed the challenge of taking them and never expected them to be anything other than holiday snaps. I’d never really tried bird photography before — they don’t make an easy subject and it’s difficult enough trying to see them normally — but if birding is the main point of a trip, it’s a treat to have a record of birds instead of just places.

I liked these pictures anyway. Does a spiffy aesthetic context make me like them any more? Should it?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to note the comparison.

» All pictures are from Flickr and are links so you can click through to the relevant pages. The birdy ones are by me; the child was taken with a Holga by john.makarewicz and the Peruvian valley was taken with a LOMO by phoosh.

FSotW: Polaroids

Flickr set of the week is Polaroids, by anniebee. They’re polaroids (obviously)
mainly taken in New York. I really like these – do check out the whole set. Particularly, but not only, the glorious ones of Coney Island.

Galapagos pics

I finally got round to uploading some photos from the Galapagos to Flickr. The whole set is here. It includes some sealions:

boobies:

and of course tourists:

Wasp nest super close-up

We finally had enough sun to make photography a bit easier. Here’s another wasp nest close-up. It’s striking how different the colours look on a sunnier day.

FSotW: Rake art

Rake art, photographed from the air with a kite (click on the picture to see the whole set):

© Lenny. Via the always-excellent BLDGBLOG.

Macro

I love the fact my camera has a macro mode. There’s something very satisfying about getting really close to things and taking pics of them.

The sand dunes are just covered in flowers – vetchy type things in scarlet, spikes of ghostly broomrape, mesembryanthemums, pink thistles, big daisies, all sorts of things in all shapes and colours.

Sparrowhawk

I was absently looking out the window and realised that a bit of a kerfuffle was a sparrowhawk taking one of the pigeons. Female this time, so she’s bigger and browner than the last s/hawk in the garden. By the time I had my scope and camera ready, she dragged the pigeon behind a bush, so she was obcured and the light wasn’t great. But at least the photo is good enough to show she was there.

The cat scared her away before she’d finished, and the pigeon flew away too, so there’s a partially plucked pigeon out there somewhere. A pigeon is quite large prey for a sparrowhawk, which is presumably why she didn’t take it very far.