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Nature Subjects to Photograph in October and November

As we enter October we are already well into autumn. Many of the birds which visit Britain for the summer have now left our shores.

However, if we look to the north and east, we find a new and exciting selection of birds heading our way, with waders, ducks, and geese returning from their Arctic breeding grounds. We also see a massive influx of thrushes during October, and this is the family that I have chosen to focus on first.

Thrushes

Four different types of thrush arrive in large numbers during October. Two of these, the redwing and fieldfare, are referred to as ‘winter thrushes’. The remaining two, the blackbird and song thrush, are also well-known to us all as breeding birds.

The first signs of their arrival can be seen along the east coast of England and Scotland, followed by a gradual spread across the whole country. Some birds make it as far as Cornwall, typically before the end of October.

For this photograph of a blackbird feeding on pyracantha I used a fast shutter speed of 1/6400th of a second, for which I needed to use the widest aperture on my 300mm lens (with 1.4x converter) and an ISO of 1600.

One of the main traits of our winter thrushes is that they occur in large, noisy flocks which behave quite nervously. Of the two, the redwing is smaller. It is about the size of a song thrush, with a characteristic reddish-brown underwing, a sliver of which can be seen on the flanks when the bird is at rest.

More obvious is the contrasting nature of the bird’s plumage, with a striking combination of dark brown and creamy-white stripes on the head.

The fieldfare is much larger, about the size of a blackbird. It has a striking colour pattern, with a grey head and rump, easily discernible against the brown back and upper wings. The spots on its breast and belly are set against a beautiful ochre-coloured throat, fading into a yellowish-brown colour on the flanks and white on the belly.

The fieldfare has a grey head and grey rump. Its breast, belly, and flanks are quite colourful when compared to other thrushes.

All four thrushes, as well as the resident mistle thrush, will spend much of the autumn feeding on fruits from our hedgerows. The succession of fruits from late summer to winter includes rowan, apple, yew, hawthorn, and holly, as well as a number of ornamental garden shrubs such as pyracantha and cotoneaster.

When they first arrive, the behaviour of the winter thrushes is quite flighty. They are nervous and don’t often settle well, unless they are very tired from their migration. As they get into a routine, their behaviour becomes a little more predictable.

At this point, when a flock of thrushes finds a hedgerow or tree with a healthy supply of berries, they tend to stay until all the berries are eaten. You will find that the birds start at the top of the tree, stripping all the berries from where they feel safest, and then move down the tree over subsequent days.

As the supply of berries reduces, the thrushes are forced to visit more urban areas, such as parks and gardens, where they feed from ornamental shrubs. Inevitably, it is in urban areas that birds become most approachable.

If the weather is very cold, they are forced to continue feeding even with people nearby. This is the easiest time for us photographers to take our chance.

Read more: What’s the Best Portable Wildlife Photography Hide?

Techniques for photographing thrushes

I have used several different strategies for photographing thrushes. My earliest attempts were at the top of a scaffolding tower next to a hedge. This took a lot of effort and, given the fact that the birds stripped the tree in front of my hide in the space of a couple of days, probably wasn’t the best use of time.

I moved on to using the car as a hide. This is a much more sensible strategy, but depends upon finding a hedge laden with berries at a relatively low height next to a parking space. This might seem like a tall order but it isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Opportunities come in all places, think supermarket car parks as much as remote hillside roads!

Some, particularly fieldfares and mistle thrushes, can become extremely protective of a food supply. They will defend their tree against all other birds. These birds are often bold enough to be photographed by stalking or simply standing and waiting, though a long lens will be required.

When stalking thrushes I tend to use the longest lens I have (800mm) on my full frame camera. With a lens of this size I need to use a tripod with a gimbal head.

Generally I start photographing with an ISO of 800, though I might reduce this slightly if I am confident that my shutter speeds are fast enough, and I am getting sharp shots. Shutter speeds need to be 1/500th of a second or faster for portraits, and no slower than 1/2000th of a second for flight/action photos: the lens might have image stabilisation, but the bird doesn’t!

Read more: What are Shutter Speed and Aperture

This mistle thrush set up its territory in an old yew tree, and was boldly defending it against all newcomers. Since the tree was in a park, the bird had become accustomed to people walking quite close. This was taken with an 800mm lens on a full-frame camera.

At home with thrushes

In my own garden I have used fruit as bait. Scattering apples on the ground is a good technique in very cold weather, but this is a strategy best reserved until January, when there are fewer berries in the hedgerows.

My most successful images have utilised the berry-bearing shrubs which I grow purposefully for birds. I have pyracantha, holly, and hawthorn, and each produces a good crop of berries.

Because these are close to my house, it tends to be blackbirds that get the lion’s share of the berries. But, over the years I have had plenty of redwings, as well as a few fieldfares, song thrushes, and mistle thrushes.

The song thrush is a resident bird in Britain, but there are many more of them in the winter when we get visitors from the north and east.

One strategy I have developed to keep the birds coming to suitable photographic spots close to the house, is to cut down some berry-laden branches from other parts of my garden, and fasten them in position near the house as a feeding station where I can photograph the birds.

I use a holed metal strip screwed to a length of timber. Between the two, I clamp some boughs of berries and I erect this adjacent to a holly tree close to the house. By doing this, I can be selective about the exact position and height of the berries. This means I can choose the window from which to shoot, and have some control over the background.

By shooting from the house and controlling the position of the berries, I am able to use a much shorter telephoto lens. Generally I am using a 300mm f/2.8 lens for this purpose, sometimes in combination with a 1.4x or 2x converter.

The shorter lens allows me to use wider apertures, and I can therefore continue to shoot in lower light than I could with a longer lens.

This is my ‘movable tree’ feeding station, which I sometimes use to keep redwings and other thrushes coming to a suitable position in the garden.

Top tip: research and fieldcraft will pay off. Get out there with your binoculars and find a good location.

On the strandline

Autumn is often associated with stormy weather, and the day or two after a storm can provide a wealth of photographic opportunities on the coast, with a variety of marine species being washed up on our shores.

The key to success is choosing an appropriate beach. Living in Cornwall, I am spoilt for beaches facing in a broadly westerly direction so, if we get a storm from that direction, that’s where I go.

In Cornwall we regularly find goose barnacles and by-the-wind sailors. Slightly rarer are buoy barnacles, and rarer still are sea beans- nuts from trees carried across from tropical America.

Goose barnacles attach themselves to floating objects and can be washed ashore after storms. For this image I wanted to show the setting as well as the subject, so I used a wide-angle lens (Canon 24-105mm at 24mm) with a relatively small aperture (f/10) to give a good depth of field. With an ISO of 100, the resulting shutter speed of 1/250th of a second was fast enough to hand-hold the camera.

Commonly found around the coast of Britain are the bones of cuttlefish, egg cases of whelks, sea urchins, starfish, colourful shells, and mermaid’s purses (the egg cases of dogfish, skates, and rays).

A couple of years ago in Cornwall, the beaches were inundated with a jellyfish-like creature known as the Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like a blue, plastic, pasty-shaped bottle, floating on the sea.

Technically a siphonophore rather than a jellyfish, this creature has tentacles up to 30 metres long. Each tentacle is packed with sting cells that can be deadly even to humans. Hundreds were washed up on the beaches, but I was able to wade in to get some shots of individuals still afloat.

The strandline offers photographic potential, from wide-angle images of creatures on the beach, to close-ups of individual species. One thing is for sure, the beach on a windy day is a difficult place to use a camera. So protect your gear, be extra careful if changing lenses, don’t put your bag down on the sand, and clean everything carefully on return to civilisation.

Read more: 8 Tips for Photographing on Boats and at Sea 

This floating blue Cornish pasty is actually a Portuguese man o’ war. As this was floating just offshore, I needed to use a long lens (300mm with 2x converter) to get frame-filling shots of it. I wanted to stop the lens down to f/8 to achieve a little depth of field, and was hand-holding the camera so wanted a fast shutter speed of 1/800th of a second (ISO 400).

Top tip: take a polarising filter. These can be used to reduce the amount of light being reflected off wet surfaces.

Have fun with fungi

When the weather is dull and dreary you might think of nature photography as a waste of time, but this is far from the truth! Dull weather is perfect for fungus photography. The reduced contrast of overcast days helps bring out the detail in these often colourful and wonderfully shaped subjects.

You’ll need a tripod that gets down to ground level, a reflector, maybe a diffuser (net curtain material will do), and a remote release. I typically use two types of lens: a wide-angle to show the subject in its environment, and a macro for close-ups. I also use a 300mm lens in certain situations to get a pleasing bokeh.

I rely mostly on ambient light, but sometimes place a reflector (often the gold side) under the fungus if possible, and sometimes cast a little shade with a diffuser from above. This should prevent burnt-out highlights on the cap. Getting all of both the cap and the stem sharp is sometimes tricky.

If experiencing this problem, firstly try using a wide-angle lens and/or a small aperture. If this doesn’t do the trick, there’s always the option of focus-stacking.

Finding subjects is usually quite easy: just take a walk in a local woodland. To learn more about your subject, and possibly find more exciting species, join a fungus group (yes, they do exist). Check with your local Wildlife Trust.

Read more: Introduction to Macro Photography Technique

To get this photo of a common stinkhorn fungus I used a 300mm lens from a very low angle. This has minimised the amount of the image that is in focus and given an interesting background effect. Technical details: f/4, 1/15th of a second, ISO 200, tripod and remote release.

Top tip: take a small LED torch to experiment with light underneath or behind the fungi.

In conclusion

The arrival of October brings with it many exciting photographic opportunities. Get out there and explore your local areas, be creative, and have fun! 

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Visit David's website

Originally a maths teacher, David has been a professional photographer and writer for the last twenty years specialising in wildlife and landscape photography. He has undertaken many photographic commissions; lectured on the Marine and Natural History Photography degree course at Falmouth University and written thirteen books about wildlife and photography in his adopted county of Cornwall where he has lived for the last twenty-five years.

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