Christmas trip 2019 part 1: The tale of four Little Owls

First of all, before we get to our story, both Rosie and I want to say happy New Year and may it be a physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy one for all of us.
This past year has been huge and it seems like an age since I last sat down in front of the computer screen and shared a photo adventure with my readers.
But here we go.

The Tale of four Little Owls

A loud Ping from my computer notified me of a new message through FaceBook from a friend Anne Lamb in my bird photography group.

When I opened the message there staring back at me was simply the most beautiful image of a Little Owl I had ever seen.
Little Owls do not inhabit the North Island of New Zealand which is where I live and I stared at the image longingly and the cogs in my brain box began to grind out a plan.

Steve and I were already planning a very short trip to the South Island over Christmas.  I saw the possibilities of obtaining images of the Little Owl and I asked Anne if she could show us the bird. Anne replied in her typical enthusiastic style and along with the yes, came a promise of Christmas cake if we behaved ourselves (which we always do) lol
Little Owls have always been on our wanted list but the time necessary to locate one was a luxury we had not enjoyed and now we were being handed one on a plate along with Christmas cake.

Dates were arranged and the excitement grew.

A rough night on the water

It was 2am and the wagon rocked wildly from side to side as the westerly wind howled through the night.
We were parked in a long line of other terrified people waiting to board the overnight ferry that would take us between the two biggest blobs of the earth that make up the bulk of the main-land of Aotearoa (The land of the long white cloud).
We would be deposited on the other blob of earth around 6am if the westerly wind didn’t blow us over to Argentina first. We made it more or less on time just as daylight was breaking with the last hour being in calm conditions.
Not that I cared, as I had taken my sea legs tablet well beforehand and my travel mattress and pillow accompanied me onto the main deck and into the lounge.   Being the height of the tourist season and just a few days out from Christmas people were packed in like a tin of sardines lying all over the floor in little family groups.

I pretended to be invisible and promptly fell to the floor and crawled under a dining room table and immediately went to sleep to the sound of the wind thrashing the side of the boat.
Our trip south was to be short this year, a ten-day whirlwind tour and back home to see in the new year.
We made our way to our guide Anne’s house halfway down the Island the next day and then out to view a Little Owl for the first time. But it was not to be just one Owl, it was to be a family of Little Owls with a chick only just starting to venture outside the nest.

First Contact

The nest was in a tree on the side of the road and we approached the nest as a convoy of two vehicles, I saw that the tree was not too dissimilar from a willow tree, only completely different.
As we drove up I spied the chick above the entrance to the nest which was a slit in the tree which led into a hollowed-out section in the heart of the trunk. It stood in defiance of the invasion force below, at least that was until we stopped and tried to get a shot outside the car in which it streaked down the trunk, into the slit and into the nest at an amazing speed.

First contact

Rule number one, STAY IN THE CAR

That chick never came out till the next day and it was only 9am in the morning so we had a long wait to see it again.
Never mind I had my first image of a Little Owl, perhaps not of the calibre of the one I was sent, but I was on the board as they say.

Sometimes cars make wonderful mobile blinds and this was to be one such occasion. After the quick departure of the chick, we decided to vacate the area and let things quieten down.
Now that Steve and I had the lay of the land it would be just a matter of returning and positioning the wagon correctly to give us the best chances.
Anne knew of other birds in the area so we went for a short tour and then planned to return to park up and partake of the legendary Christmas cake, but something happened along the way.
I was promoted to the backseat of Anne’s car which I shared with her hairy tribe of 3 Jack Russells. I could now see and shoot out both sides of the road providing I could shoot between the hairy beasts. As we were passing the nest site on the way back, I spied a Little Owl at the base of the tree so we glided to a stop and I got my first shots of an adult bird from three meters away.
He had a starling head and neck in his beak. Most likely the rest of the starling had been served as the main meal to the chick and the dad had the leftovers, I could hear him crunching the head from inside the car.

A little Owl has a bird for lunch

Yummy Starling head for lunch.
I could hear the crunching of the head and beak from inside the car.

The bird did not remain long on his little perch just above the ground and flew off into the trees to finish his meal away from prying eyes.  We positioned the wagons, broke out the flask coffee and had lunch finishing off with the famous Christmas cake which truly lived up to its legend.
It wasn’t too long after that, that our guide had to return home and we were left to our own devices and we settled down for the long wait.
We did not know what to expect but not much happened over the next 6 hours.
Then one materialised as if out of thin air and I got the shot I had been hoping for.

and suddenly it materialized

That was basically the end of our first day and we headed back to the holiday park and prepared for day 2 which started as soon as there was enough light.

Bad light great day 

We knew we were going to struggle a bit as the sun came up directly behind the tree. It was light overcast which made it even worse, the sky was bright white. We would have to shoot at least 2 stops over to get any light on the birds if they put in an appearance. This would result in very low contrast images as the overwhelming bright backlighting from the white sky behind the tree would be making its presence felt.

Always expose for your subject and deal with the background later in Lightroom or Photoshop.
At 8am we got our first bit of action with an adult coming in with a big fat beetle for the chick and we got our first shots of the chick and a parent.

Our first shots of an adult with a chick

A big surprise – one becomes two

Mum or Dad, (we could not tell which was which) started making more and more frequent trips back to the nest as the morning wore on. Then to our delight, another much smaller chick poked its head out of the entrance to the nest. There were two chicks and not one as we were told.

two Little Owl chicks poke their heads out of their nest

two Little Owl chicks poke their heads out of their nest.

As the morning wore on activity dropped off and it was decided that we would head on down to the Ashley River Estuary and see what the place had to offer.

It was midday and we still had light overcast conditions which are ideal during summer just so long as the sun is not directly behind your subject.
Having only been at Ashley River Estuary on one other occasion we had no idea how to approach the area, so we simply headed right up the middle.
The usual suspects that one would normally expect on a coastal estuary were present.

a kōtuku ngutupapa or Royal spoonbill makes its way up the Ashley River Estuary

A kōtuku ngutupapa or Royal spoonbill makes its way up the Ashley River Estuary


tarāpuka or the black-billed gull diving for sea worms

tarāpuka or the black-billed gull diving for sea worms


The Ruddy Turnstone also known as the Arctic Turnstone migrates from the top of the world the Arctic Circle to the bottom, New Zealand, every southern summer

The Ruddy Turnstone  migrates from the top of the world, the Arctic Circle to the bottom, New Zealand, every southern summer

kuaka the bar-tailed godwit another summer visitor from the arctic flying up the Ashley River Estuary in search of a worm or two

kuaka the bar-tailed godwit another summer visitor from the arctic, flying up the Ashley River Estuary in search of a worm or two.

Soon it was time to return to the Little Owls and we parked the wagon and waited.

That afternoon never seemed to pick up. However, we were entertained by a Hare that dropped by to keep us company for a while.

A The European Hare dropped by to keep us company

In Europe, hares are considered a delicacy and are not that common. In New Zealand, they are considered a pest and seldom end up on our plates.

Tomorrow, as they say, is another day and so this proved to be true. We packed up and headed back to the campsite wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Day three of the great Little Owl stakeout

The third day dawned much like the previous, overcast with difficult light, but the nest site became a hive of frantic activity for those first few hours.
It was Christmas Day 2019 and like Christmas for many, food and fellowship becomes the main focus, it appears Little Owls are not that different from humans.

a mother with her two Little Owl chicks

The mother with her two Little Owl chicks as the day warmed up so did the activity

The two chicks began competing for the beetles being delivered to the door and things became truly comical.
The wagon had become oblivious to the family of Little Owls. just so long as we stayed inside and reasonably quiet.

The larger chick came up with a cunning plan, It climbed above the nest and when the food came in, it dropped straight down on top of the food provider like a demented paratrooper creating chaos and upsetting the apple cart.

A Little Owl perches in its tree above the nest

The old chick perches above the nest hoping to drop in for a juicy Beatle. It worked .. but not for long.


The king of chaos drops in for Christmas dinner

We would have loved better light to capture the action, but you get what you get in this game and you do with it the best you can.

Meantime the beetles keep coming

A Little Owl with a Beetle for its chicks

Mumma Owl with a beetle takes a deep breath before flying into the danger zone. She casts her eye up at her ravenous babies looking down at her with pleading eyes.

We had plans to head south to the southernmost region of the New Zealand mainland, so it was with glad hearts we left the circus hoping we could catch up where we left off on our way back up the Island.

Little did we know that we would witness a giant step in the development of the chicks when we got back, something that made us feel truly privileged to see.

Anne’s hairy tribe


Christmas Prints

Give a great gift to yourself or a loved one this Christmas with one of my Boneywhitefoot nature prints.
Ideal for in the home or office.
Browse a few of my images here or view my complete galleries of New Zealand landscapes or native birds here

Be quick though as Christmas is almost upon us and it can take 2 weeks from the order being placed till the image arrives. (For New Zealand orders only).
Either contact me through messenger or follow the instructions on my website.

Carol Turner ” The 20×30 looks amazing in my office, something to stare at while contemplating words.”
Caral Turner loves her new print and it gives her much pleasure as it takes pride and place in her workplace.

The 20×30 looks amazing in my office, something to stare at while contemplating words.

Pauatahanui photography workshops

The aim of all serious bird photographers should be to create art from their images.

Anyone can take an image of a bird and make it look great on the internet, where most people view it on their cell phone.

If you are a serious photographer, your ultimate goal should be to take an image that you can make into a beautiful print, one you would be proud of hanging on the wall in your lounge.

If this is your goal then you must pick the right place at the right time.

I know a place that will produce wonderful images of waterfowl and wading birds in the right conditions. I also run Pauatahanui photography workshops in this location for anyone interested in participating in one.

Pauatahanui photography workshops

Pauatahanui Inlet runs eastward directly inland from the kāpiti-mana coast for about two miles.

The estuary runs directly to the sea in a straight line, touching the horizon without any serious obstructions.
This means that when the sun is almost sinking into the sea, the light still shines directly into the pond filling the place with an amazing, almost unbelievable golden glow.

The Pond

My spot is a small saltmarsh, complete with a tidal pond at the very end of the estuary, surrounded by native jointed wire rush or oi oi in Maori.
I know that when the light is right these wild rushes intensify the light, setting the place ablaze in glorious golden light.

The conditions

What I need is a combination of a fine night with little or no wind, then I know I’m going to get stunning images.

Just the other night such conditions were forecast and Rosie Nixon and I headed out to my spot in the hope that the conditions would not change.

In this image of a Spurwing Plover, the light is on the change, slowly the colour of the jointed wire rush or oi oi that surrounds the pond is changing from an almost pale dead straw colour to a much warmer golden glow.

pauatahanui photography workshops

Spur-wing plover


Thirty minutes and a cup of coffee later, the light is really starting to make its self felt.

The jointed wire rush or oi oi is starting to go through its colour shift.

pauatahanui photography workshops

jointed wire rush or oi oi

Ths sun is sinking lower and I know that the sun is now perfect to catch the red colour of the poaka or pied stilts eyes. Knowing this can allow us to capture beautiful images.

pauatahanui photography workshops

poaka the Pied Stilt

The light now being glorious has its downside, that being slower shutter speeds.
Getting flying birds with sharp wings now becomes more good luck than good management.

I have nailed the bird but the wings have motion blur.

pauatahanui photography workshops

poaka or pied stilt


Waiting a few more minutes means that will now be at its very best. The light is now at it’s very best and the colour is intense.
With the sun now lower, the very lowest parts of the pond have lost the direct sun. This creates a demarcation between the bright direct sun (top)and the more subdued indirect light (bottom), thus adding contrast.

pauatahanui photography workshops

A Male Canada Goose


The end of the golden light is fast approaching as the sun drops below the horizon.
With no chance of feezing the action, the only other option is to try and create an interesting image.
The light will often carry the emotional response for the viewer and that first initial response often dictates whether the viewer enjoys the image or not.

pauatahanui photography workshops

Canada Goose in flight during the last light of the day

Our night was soon over and Rosie seems very pleased with her evening’s efforts.
Not even the incessant flying insects can put a damper on that smile.

pauatahanui photography workshops

Rosie seems pleased with the way the evening went.

If you would like to go to one of my Pauatahanui photography workshops, please contact me here or on Facebook.




Don’t get in a flap, photograph it instead

This is the second post in a series I’m doing called, How to Improve your bird photos.
This series will provide basic tips on how to improve your bird images.

In this post, we are going to look at how to create images that impact your audience.
There are many ways of adding drama or making dynamic images when it comes to bird photography this short essay is but one of many things you can consider.

Wait for something to happen

Really effective portrait shots of birds, especially of waterfowl can simply feature birds at rest on the water.
A good simple image, taken as close as one can get to the eye level of the bird that the terrain and conditions allow, shows the bird off in all of its splendour.

This is a male pāpango, Black Teal or best known as the New Zealand Scaup at rest and  relaxed


A male kuruwhengi or Australasian shoveler at rest. We have the profile, we have the colour but do we have impact?

Don’t get in a flap, wait for it

When it comes to waterfowl wait for the classic pose known as THE FLAP.
The FLAP is dynamic, it adds drama and often addition colours of the bird not available when the bird is at rest on the water.

Mr pāpango, in a flap


Mrs pāpango, might not have the colour Mr pāpango has, but she can flap with the best of them.


Mr kuruwhengi showing off his flashy wing colours that we would otherwise never see in a resting pose.


This kawau paka or Little Shag, going through its black morph phase can also lay down his moves.


Even Mrs kōtare the Kingfisher gets in a flap every now and again.

How to know its coming.

Water Fowl generally let you know when they are about to flap their wings.
The telltale signs that the flap is on the way is when they duck their heads under the water and extend their necks lengthwise, then lift that neck and head stiffly until up out of the water until upright.
Some say this is how they drink, but that does not explain why the flap nearly always follows immediately after the dunking.
I say its part of the bathing process and nearly always comes at the end of the bathing process.  Doing this weird display allows water to flow down the neck and on to the shoulders and the flap is their way of drying off.
Either way, look for the Ridgid neck and head ducking, you then know the flap is on the way.

With the colours Mr Wood Duck has to show off, flapping your wings is making a real statement.


Mrs Wood Duck might not have the colours Mr Wood Duck has, but what a magnificent chest she has. I suspect this is a power move lol

There you have it, how not to avoid getting into a flap while catching it with your camera sensor at the same time.

Watch your Background

This is the first post in a series I’m doing called, How to Improve your bird photos.
This series will provide basic tips on how to improve your bird images.

You’re telling the story

When you drop the shutter you have just started to write the first paragraph of a story.
This story is about what got your attention and what motivated you to take the shot in the first place.
In almost every case when it comes to photographing birds, the bird is the star of the show.
As such your bird should be on show in all it’s glory and nothing else in your photo should overwhelm or compete with your star.

Painting with Light

Photography basically means painting with light and there are a few rules of how the human eye reacts to light.
Firstly when looking at someone’s image the human eye is automatically attracted to the brightest part of the image overriding or bypassing all objects or lesser light values in the race to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Below is an example of how if your main subject is close to a much brighter patch of light, that light overwhelms and makes it hard to see detail in your subject.

In this case, the entire background is overwhelming my bird making it much harder for our eyes to comfortably rest on it and see the fine detail.

First appearances count, make it easy

That first and instantaneous appearance is important and if the attention of the viewer is immediately drawn away from your bird, they may not be bothered putting in the extra effort of shifting their focus back on to your main subject.
You must not muddy your story, you must make it as easy as possible for your viewer, guiding them immediately to the star of the show.

Watch your background

In this second image, I have looked closely at my background and choosen an area on the pond with a more suitable background.
I choose a background that not only won’t compete with my bird but has colours that actually enhance and complement my handsome bird. I simply positioned my self in the right spot and waited for my bird to drift past.

Being thoughtful and the patient, choosing your background can do better justice to your subject and increase the admiration in your viewers as your star stands out in all their glory.

I run workshops on the Kapiti Coast specialising in bird photography and if you’re interested in a workshop to help you improve your bird photography  I  do 4-hour workshops 1 on 1 or a small group up to 4 people.

Contact me HERE  or pm me on facebook