The great Crake quest part 3,The Crake arena.

We finished part 2 with Steve and I back home in Upper Hutt, waiting for the windows on the wagon to get fixed, determined not to let the thieves spoil our trip.
The down time was spent at home processing the images I  already had for the trip  and fine tuning the third phase of our trip, while also keeping an eye on the birding community, just in case something big was happening up country that we could poke our nose into.

Word soon filtered through to us that Donald had replaced Steve “CRAKE” Richards as the Shakespeare Crake Spotter in “Steve’s spot” with great success.
But what was even more exciting was that Oscar, his sidekick had located a whole community of Spotless Crakes feeding on the wet mud, surrounding a small pond hidden among the toi toi bushes in the spot I had casually pointed out to Don as being an ideal spot for Crakes.
Dons photos of the Crakes started appearing in the forums fuelling our determination to return to the north.
Mike Ashbee and his partner Amber from Christchurch in the South Island had lucked out timing a trip up north on a pelagic trip that coincided with the finding of the Crakes and ended up with the  massive bonus of being able to photograph them. 
Spotless Crakes are very rare in the South Island and in fact I dont know anyone who  has ever seen one down there ,  Mike was over the moon with his images.

Steve made new windows for the wagon out of some material he found lying around,  as we had no time to wait till the local businesses to re-open after the new year’s holiday.
Steve had spent many years living on the isolated steward Island, where he learnt many skills and fixing stuff was one of them.
An opportunity like this is rare indeed, so the gear was thrown into the wagon and back up past Auckland we headed.

Day 1: Heading North
As it was, this gave us another chance at the Black Kite on the way north , so Oram Road, the birds happy hunting ground was our first destination.
It was late afternoon around 5pm when we made Huntly a small town 20 mins south of Oram road, here  we held a meeting of the board of directors and it was unanimously decided that dinner (supper if you’re a yank) would be purchased in Huntly and then devoured in the wagon at a well known corner on Oram Road where the Black Kite had been spotted before and so it transpired.

We had just pulled up and parked off the road, my packet of fish and chips, once safely wrapped in paper, was now spread open on my lap, a generous amount of tomato sauce was being applied to the chips when I happened to look out the window.
(&%$$^%$””)  Not 30 meters away, here comes the Black Kite flying directly at us.
Camera on the floor under my feet, a lap loaded with fish and chips, tomato sauce bottle open, all in all a recipe for a great big mess lol.
Steve was outside the wagon looking over an area of swamp with his back to me.
KITE, KITE, KITE, I hissed, making sure it was more than loud enough to get Steve’s attention.

I cant say Im aware of exactly what happened in the next few seconds but most of my fish and chips remained in the paper and there is to this day NO tomato sauce stains on the seats .
But I was out side in a jiffy trying to focus on that bird as it glided past oblivious to the frantic panicking going on below.  Click click  I managed to nail it on the way past .

For the uninitiated  this a packet of fish and chips once wrapped in paper , now spread open on my lap


I nailed the Black Kite on the way past.

black Kite-1922-Edit

It glided past up the road out of sight, Steve was now in the driving seat, engine roaring and off up the road in a  a spray of pebbles, and dust we went in hot pursuit.
We got to the end of the road without seeing it again, Back down the road we came, lamenting such a missed opportunity when Steve spotted the bird coming out of the sun, if it stayed on its current course it would pass right in front of us.
This time we were prepared , the wagon glided to a stop , out of the wagon spilt our two heroes and clikerty click, click went the cameras as the bird glided  right over us.

The sky was very bright over cast and the sun still well above the bird so I choose to shoot one and a half stops over the reading the camera had made its mind up to use.
This way the bird would not appear as a sharp black silhouette in a pure white sky.
I always shoot in pattern or average exposure mode, so the camera looks at all that bright white sky and the little dark object (the bird) and decides to set the exposure for and over all average exposure based on that combined information , the result is devastation for the user as they end up with a perfectly exposed sky and a jet black bird. Solution? force the camera to over expose the sky  called over compensation and hope you are in the ball park.
Experience plays a major role in knowing how to push the camera exposure in the right direction and by how much.
Much back patting went on as we both had pretty good images of a bird seldom seen in New Zealand, we were off to a great start.

I could have done with pushing the exposure another half a stop,  but you takes what you get  in this game.

Black Kite-1981-Edit


Day 2 :The Crake Arena
Day 2 found us at the Crake Arena and we set up and settled down well hidden with a feeling of great excitement and anticipation .

The pond is perfectly placed in the centre of a mixed forest of toi toi and flax bushes, with  an open area of about 30 feet in circumference.
Several Crake families were using the area to feed and disputes were frequent hence the name Crake Arena.
Some of us will remember a computer game called Quake Arena, so that’s where the idea came from.

Crakes love damp to very wet gooey mud, close to cover that contains worms and many insects.
With summer now in full swing the water table in the swamp had dropped reducing the wet areas the Crakes use to feed, this made the Crake arena a hot spot of activity and it wasn’t long before we got our first customer.
The first character to appear was a young Crake chick, I lay as still as I could, flat on the damp ground the camera out in front of me and me trying to hide behind it.
The Crake did not seem to care, it fed incredibly close and my eyes must have been popping out of my head.
This first image will give us an idea of just how small these birds are.
This bird is almost full size , the blades of grass are just inches high

Spotless Crake or puweto-21
This juvenile is almost adult size

Spotless Crake or puweto-9
Off and on various Crakes visited the arena and as the day wore on the light became very harsh and we retired to Dons house for a snooze and a bite to eat.
Unfortunately that night, it became very overcast and the light faded very quickly.
Spotless Crakes are food for just about everything out there and certainly all the predatory birds in the sky as well as ground based predators, so they are super, scatty, nervous, creatures that are ever on the alert.
Crakes move around with quick, jerky movements, never stopping , often speeding off into cover for no good reason. Sometimes they just leave you scratching your head.
Without good light my shutter speed was not going to be fast enough to give me sharp images on these fast moving birds, so it was pack it in for the day and hope for a better luck tomorrow.

Day 3: The Crake Arena revisited.
Tomorrow arrived and it looked like just what we wanted.

Day 3 dawned perfect for what we wanted


For most of the day the arena was visited by a mixture of chicks and juveniles, but there was also more going on in and around the arena than just the Crakes.
tui flew, or more accurately, hovered, above the arena snatching insect’s out of the air on the wing, very impressive.

Anyone who has tried to photograph tui on the wing will appreciate just how hard it is and Im very pleased with these shots as the light at the time was less than favourable.



The shutter speed was not fast enough to freeze the wing beat of this bird,  but I was very happy with this shot .

Eastern Rosella landed close by and I managed to stalk a few, there was always something going on to keep us amused, most valuable though by far was being able to watch the Crakes completely out in the open doing their thing  and we learnt heaps about their feeding habits and survival skills.

Eastern Rosella landed close by and I managed to stalk a few.

eastern rosella-2572-Edit


Mostly  the arena was visited by youngsters , this one was very young .

Spotless Crake or puweto-43

Two sizes

Spotless Crake or puweto-3


As the day wore on, the sun began to slip from the sky the adults came out to feed, talk about a challenge. Them little muthas were close and moving at speed, I was lying flat along the ground in the grass to get my preferred head level straight at the bird profile shots, trying to keep them in the view finder kept me busy.
To have these birds so close to us at last, was a real treat.
The adult birds tended to stalk stealthy in on the insects, then rush at them at the last moment, click blast  missed, click ,click, click……, blast missed again, it was tricky to say the least .

Spotless Crake or puweto-24


Ready to pounce

Spotless Crake-2487-Edit
A bit of breeze up the bum every now and again made for interesting images

Spotless Crake or puweto-11
Insect eating, mud monster

Spotless Crake or puweto-15



Day 4 : Pureora Forest Park

However, how many similar shots of one species of bird does one need in the same environment ?
The next day would be wasted spending it with the Crakes yet again, as we would getting the same type of images, so it was throw everything into the back in the wagon and blast back down the Island to our beloved, koekoeā or Long tail Cuckoo  spot, in the Pureora Forest Park, deep in the heartland of the King Country.

Every year for the past 4 years this has been our grand finale.
As far as Im concerned to get good photos of these birds in flight is the most rewarding  and satisfying. 
These bird have caused me to create new and unheard of swear words over the few years, just especially for them, they are truly in a class of their own lol.
When they do pass you by, they do not fly level, they fly almost nap or the earth, that means they follow the contour of the landscape up over high points, diving down in the dips.
You just don’t get to appreciate how fast these bird fly and how tricky they are till you try to keep them in the viewfinder.
These Cuckoos migrate here each summer to lay eggs in the Whitehead nests, a bird about the size of a sparrow.
pōpokotea or  Whitehead is about the size of a house sparrow

pōpokotea or the Whitehead


During winter, long-tails live on a heap of different Islands scattered around the Pacific Ocean where they spent their time lazing around in the sun all day, but each year they fly here to New Zealand, pop out an egg or two into a Whitehead nest and force their kids onto the poor unsuspecting whitehead, who is then forced to feed a baby that becomes 6 times their size for the summer months.
Then they and the chicks fly back up north into the Pacific during our winter, have a friendly family party of it , patting each other on the back celebrating a job well done.

Some one really needs to sit down with these birds and explain just how irresponsible parents they are.

It would be a lot easier if the birds could be found in the same areas every year, but that just isn’t so.
We have to hunt and scout for them each year, but when we track them down the fun begins.
We are not really looking for single birds, what we are after mainly is communities of these birds, that’s where the action really is.
This year it took us 2 days to find them but when we did, man did it go off.
If you can imagine 2 rows  of trees about 150 meters long  with an open corridor of about 4 meters between them  with over a dozen birds screeching at each other from the trees on both sides.

A long tail flies over head, a very challenging target 

koekoeā the Long tail Cuckoo--24
Low and hard out  its even more challenging lol

koekoeā the Long tail Cuckoo--14


It was deafening and impossible to photograph them most of the time as they flew from  one side to the other before we could get anywhere near ready , they are also experts at putting branches between them and us once they know we are after them.
We snuck up and down those trees trying to photograph the birds screeching and hollering making such a racket it was hard to hold onto to our sanity. These birds make no wing beat noise when they fly so we had no warning when one would break cover to fly across in front or behind us. We were pretty much nervous wrecks by the time we left them to it.

Sneaking up and down the row of trees, as stealthy as possible, has its occasional rewards.

koekoeā the Long tail Cuckoo--18

What a way to finish what had certainly been our most rewarding trip to date.
but  the longtails are not the only game in Pureora.

An adult Bell bird with its chick.

Bell Bird-3692-Edit
The bell bird is so  named after the bell sounding call it makes.

Bell Bird-3698-Edit

A tomtit singing for all its worth.


So much had happened over the last  few  weeks and as per normal we were already planning or next trip away during the winter months.
We had learnt a lot of new information and it would prove to be invaluable in aiding us on the Crakes we had lined up closer to home.
What a trip we had this year.

I manged to knock the top of my wish list  for a home run.
Marsh Crake
Spotless Crake
Banded Rail
Black Kite
Fairy Tern.
This summer trip will be long remembered not just for the birds  but for the shared memories .
Sharing the excitement with my mate Steve CRAKE Richards  lol   and meeting up with some amazing people.
A big thanks goes out to Don, his partner  and Anna  for putting up with us .
I will leave the last say to the longtails
please have a listen to these incredible birds here .
Go to the speaker Icon on the right with the heading “songs/calls from several birds”  to get an idea of what the longtails sound like.

Bless you peoples heaps , its back to the normal monthly reports , tips and tricks and notices about upcoming workshops  in the months to come.




Size Counts

Today’s essay is all about size really does count.

Mostly this post is dealing with birds, big birds, little birds, huge birds and tiny birds.

Often we isolate our subject from any surrounding distractions in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the finer details of our subject, feather patterns, colour , shape and in doing so we divorce our subject from its place in the world.
We take away the relationship our subject has with its surroundings.
It is hard to tell their real size when the image has completely divorced the bird from its environment.
Remember our image tells a story to the viewer and size can be a very important part of the story .
Right lets start off with this little critter a young Variable Oyster catcher chick.

We have a nice closeup of the chick, plenty of detail to look at but just how big is it ?

Variable Oyster catcher-1678-Edit


Lets zoom out a little bit  and give the chick a bit of environment so we can tell just how big he or she is.

Variable Oyster catcher-1669-Edit

Just having the driftwood in the frame gives us something to compare the size of the chick with.

Lets try another bird, this one is a terek sandpiper.

Terek sandpipers

This is a pretty good shot of a fairly rare bird in New Zealand .
Again lots of detail  but tells us nothing of the true size on the bird.

Here is mister Terek again , this time we have some Bar tailed Godwits to make a comparison with.
Mr Terek is a very small bird not readily apparent in the first shot and has quite  a nervous disposition .

The Southern Royal Albatross is the heaviest flying bird in the world and only just misses out on the widest wingspan to the Snowy Albatross by a fraction.

Southern royal albatross-9974-Edit
This picture above does not give credit to the birds real size.
These birds are enormous.

The following picture gives us a better idea of the true size of these monster birds.
the lead bird is a White Cap Albatross , not a small bird by any standards but it is dwarfed by the Southern.

Southern royal albatross-5314-Edit

Next up is a pukeko chick.
most of us know the average size of the pukeko  so here we have a reference point , the head of the muma pukeko


Now here is a day old Banded Dotteral Chick

Banded Dotteral -9344-Edit
We know its small but just how small is it?

Pretty freakin small lol

Banded Dotteral -9434-Edit
Landscapes can also understate your subject without a reference point.

Elephant rocks in Otago , they look alright but how big is how big ?

Using Steve as our reference  we can grasp the size more accurately.
Now Steve aint the tallest person on earth but we can still use him as a comparison.

Finally  there is nothing like an open space to give context .
A young Spurwing Plover out in the open.

Spur-winged plover

Keep pressing the shutter button folks .
Spring has well and truly sprung, lets make the most of it before the heat shimmer makes late morning photography a delusion .


The art of composition

In this post I want to talk about composition relating to bird photography.
I only way I know how to do this, is to explain and show you how I would approach this myself.
I use Adobe Lightroom combined with Photoshop exclusively.
After initially importing my images of the days shoot into a temporary holding folder that sits outside my main Lightroom library, I sort through my days effort discarding all out of focus and unpleasing images.
The next step is to look at shots that are similar (many shots of the same bird in the same situation) and select the very best shots and deleting double ups.
Once I have sorted out the images I want to spend time on processing, I get down to the nitty gritty.
Once I have selected an image I’m pleased with, the first thing I consider is the composition (the placement of the subject within the image) and the crop ratio.
Do I want a close up of the bird itself with as little distraction as possible or do I want to show the bird in relationship to its environment.
Many people including myself, especially at the beginning of my photographic career just wanted to fill the frame with bird.
Now days I’m more inclined to present the bird as part of the environment.
Crop ratio
Crop ratio and the posture of the bird are directly linked.
Often the posture of the bird dictates the ratio.
Compact upright birds like Kingfishers and Dotterals are not restricted to landscape crops like long necked Herons and Swans when they are stretched out length ways.

Please click on the images to see the full size

This Swan does not lend its self to a portrait crop

Kaki anau the Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)


This New Zealand Dotteral,  or known by the  māori as tūturiwhatu, being very upright does lend its self to a portrait type of crop.

The New Zealand Dotterel, Red-breasted Plover, or New Zealand Plover (Charadrius obscurus) Māori names include Tūturiwhatu, Pukunui, and Kūkuruatu

Im going to use an Image of a kingfisher, taken in the early morning light for this exercise.
He is upright so I can choose either to use a upright (portrait) crop ratio or a (landscape)

Here is the original image

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)
I like both aspects, portrait and landscape with this bird so I will go both ways and save both versions to my library.

First off I will deal with the landscape version.
I have a few options here
I can choose the original aspect of the image  , 16 x 9   which is a wide screen aspect  or 16×10.

Because the bird is upright, 16×9 looks a bit long and narrow for me , I like the 16×10 option so with that chosen I now have to choose how tight I want to crop my image .

I don’t want to crowd the bird and as the bird is looking out across the flats for crabs I want to leave plenty of room in front of the bird.

Here the kotare is cropped way to tight .
he is squeezed top and bottom.

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)

I don’t want to crowd the bird height wise and squash him into the image, I want plenty of space for the bird to breathe   so to speak.

The line up

One common mistake I see is that the bird is positioned wrong in the image.
Rule of thumb is one third behind and two third’s in front is a pretty safe bet.
this gives the bird room to stare out .
A photo should always be about telling a story.

Below the bird is positioned to the wrong side.
The bird is gazing out across the mud flats looking for crabs.
The image does not convey that story clearly.

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)


Now we have the bird in a much better position.
He is not cramped in and has the breathing space in front and the image now conveys a much clearer story of the bird on its perch in its place in the world.

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)


Next we will look at the portrait version.
again this bird is far to cramped in with no room  to breathe.

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)
Because with the portrait aspects the focus is nearly always on the subject and not on its place in the environment we can crop a little closer but notice there is more room ahead of the bird than behind.

Sacred Kingfisher or Kotare (Todiramphus sanctus)

I hope this has been of some help
I do one on one workshops for both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Cheers and thanks for showing interest in my blog.