Photos from a visit to the Red Kite centre at Argaty Farm

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Click on thumbnails for LARGER images

  10 at once!  

Went up to Argaty, not sure if there was any kind of guarantee of seeing red kites...  I had only had one good view of a wild Scottish red kite before yesterday.  Drove into the car park, and there were 2 or 3 kites circling in the background.  So, seeing them not an issue!  There is a visitor centre at the farm, and the viewing hide is about 400 m up a track behind the farm.  The hide seats about 30, each with their own viewing port, and it was full to capacity on the day!  The warden gives you the history of the project and tells you there are now about 50 birds in the area.  The Argaty birds were originally brought in from Germany and Denmark, as at the time, the only remaining British birds were all descended from a single female in Wales!  Now, they rear enough to export the surplus.  On the day, we had about half of the locals in the sky over the hide - most I got in one frame was 10.

The warden puts down some food each side of the hide, to encourage the birds in.  I was hoping for some good shots of them coming down and scooping up food, as I have seen at similar projects being run down south, on TV.  However, while they seemed only too keen to put on an aerial show for us, they were incredibly reluctant to come down for the food.  They came down but twice: once while I was on the wrong side of the hide, and once after we had all gone down the hill at the end of the day - we could see them from the farm, having a rare old free-for-all.  Doh!  They are a fair old size when you see them up close - a good bit bigger than a buzzard.  Brilliant birds.

Anyroads - the photography...  this was my first attempt at doing something like this.  Main problem was having the hide portal looking out horizontally ahead of you, while the birds are all circling overhead above you.  So, you end up kind of leaning out the portal, cricking your neck, while trying to frame (at max zoom) and focus on things moving about above you.  Not easy...  not by a long chalk.  Next problem is that they are just not coming near enough most of the time.  I took all the shots of the kites with the lens at full stretch of 400 mm, and even then I had to crop out most of each frame to leave the wee bit with the bird in it - most just about 1000 pixels at 100% zoom.

Next problem was shooting against the sky all the time.  (A very bland, grey sky to boot!)  V. difficult to spot meter on the bird, and using any kind of prog setting resulted in needing to add +1.5 to +2 EV to get a good exposure of the bird (rather than the silhouette you got at 0 EV).  However, as soon as you add 1.5 to 2 EV, your shutter speed starts to drop.  I found, looking through what was usable and what wasn't, that a shutter speed of about 1/350s to 1/500s was about the slowest you could trust.  Conflict!!  Had to use RAW editing to process slightly underexposed shots to get a decent compromise.

I missed a chance of a good shot when one kite came close and crossed in front of the trees, and I thought I had got it.  However, I was in aperture priority at the time, and the change from sky to trees as a backdrop caused the shutter to drop to 1/45s to 1/60s, which was way too slow, and the shots were very blurry!  So, an absolute must for next time... shoot in manual or shutter priority.  I kept ISO on 200, and I think if I had been on manual or shutter priority, I might have got away with that, but 400 might have been better looking back.

Probably the main problem I had was focusing.  In manual, I just could not handle focusing on a moving target that I could barely keep in frame (remember, I'm leaning out a small hole in a wall, trying to point upwards!).  In autofocus, it wasn't much easier to get a focus lock and then shoot while it was still the same distance away.  You'll get an idea of how little depth of field you have at 400mm / f5.6 from the 2 birds in the last row, bottom left.  The bird on the left is in focus, while the one on the right is only slightly further away, but is clearly out of focus.


A really interesting experience that I can recommend to any nature lovers, and I will definitely be back to try and correct a few errors.