Red Kites Mating

Date: Monday 28th March 2011

Location: Watlington, Oxfordshire.

The back story…

The purchase of the F* 250-600mm lens just days before Christmas was the spark that got me serious about my wildlife photography. Obviously weighing around 5.5kg on it’s own this is not really a walkabout lens so some forward planning starts becoming a necessity! With tripod (or monopod) use essential I was quite happy that the heavy duty setup we had of a Manfrotto 058 tripod and Manfrotto 503 video head would be ideal, but at around 8kg in weight it wasn’t ideal or as stable as you would hope with a long lens.

Many many long nights of research led me to, yet again, sell off a lot of kit to help fund the purchase of the Gitzo GT5541LS tripod (Update: This has now been replaced with a Gitzo GT5562GTS) and Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal Head. (There is a reason for the back story, bear with me!) During this time, I was also planning my first proper project and very quickly chose to do Red Kites. There were a few simple reasons for this, they were on my doorstep (they were re-released into England less than 20 miles away!), they are a bigger target to aim for so good practice for the new setup and the timing was about right for the start of the mating rituals / breeding season.

Location, location, location…

With the full setup now complete (including a new K-5!), it was time to use it in anger so off I went to find some Kites! Starting location was near Nether Winchendon as we has seen kites around there before and sure enough there was some action there, but unfortunately just too far away. New locations were needed so advice offered from friends and family led me to Princes Risborough (too far away again, not natural setting), tips from the internet included Chris’ Cafe near Stokenchurch which is mad as they do feed them there and you can see around 50 in the sky at a time!

Whilst Chris’ Cafe was damn good target practice, blue skies quickly became boring and lorries are not ideal backrounds! Driving along from there I saw them following a tractor as it ploughed the field, churning up worms for them. The Red Kite Galleries do include shots from most of these locations. Whilst driving around the Stokenchurch area, especially the quick blast through the M40 escarpment it dawned on me that the better shots would be to try and get above them shooting down or at least get at their level (which you can see in the 2nd half of the Red Kite Gallery).

Some time was then spent with Google maps searching for the best hilltop locations then cross referencing them with the Photographers Ephemeris to ensure the sunlight would be behind me. This search eventually pinned down Watlington Hill as a possible ideal location with a quick recce proving this to be the case!

The day of the shoot…

The next Monday I was there, ready with packed lunch for a long stint hoping to get some good shots. On the walk out wondering where the best position would be I saw another photographer was already there so decided to say hello and maybe setup there as some company would be nice. As I went to introduce myself I recognised it was Richard Peters, whose blog I referenced a lot whilst researching my tripod and head purchase, ‘Hi’ I said ‘you cost me £1200 you know’. It was a different way to break the ice, but it worked!

It should be pointed out that Richard won the Countryfile photographic competition in 2007 and reading through his blog gave me a lot of ideas and inspiration which also lead eventually to developing this website to share my work for others to enjoy. Obviously I was going to pump him for information, tips, advice anything I could get out of him but thought that might be a bit rude so we just ended up chatting about the Red Kites, locations we had been shooting them, behaviour etc.

Unfortunately my time with Richard was short lived as he had to leave to go to work, but before he had gone he had given me plenty of tips that he had learned with his time with the kites there including pointing out a favourite tree. It was this knowledge that led me to getting lucky with my first proper ‘wow’ moment as now I was keeping my eye on this tree.

Even though it was around 3PM in the afternoon, the light was awful, dark clouds were rolling in and it was getting to that stage where I thought it was going to rain so was ready to pack away at any moment. It was then that I heard the female kite calling quite a lot and quickly realised she was sat on top of the favoured tree so pointed the camera at her and pre focussed so I was ready, just in case.

As I was playing around a lot with settings on the still new to me K-5, this was the test shot I took to make sure that the images would be as shake free as possible. Having quickly learnt that high shutter speeds are very important when using long lenses and at the time I was testing the TAV mode on the camera, I set the shutter speed at 1/2000s and the aperture wide open at F5.6. Using the TAV mode on the camera meant that I knew my shutter speed and aperture were at fixed settings with the camera left to choose the best ISO setting dependant on the light.

Let the mating begin…

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw another Red Kite swooping in and started to fire! He landed straight on her back and wasted no time getting down to business whilst I continued to take short bursts of shots rather than just keep my trigger finger firmly planted, hoping that I wouldn’t run out of buffer! In the next 13 seconds I took a total of 35 shots getting a full sequence of before, landing, during and leaving! The adrenalin rush took over, ‘gotcha!’ I shouted out loud and I’m sure there might have been an embarrassing little dance to go with it! Thankfully there were no witnesses around at the time!

Combined with a distance (according to Google maps) of around 500 feet, the lack of light leading to ISO settings of 5000-6400 on a DSLR with a crop sensor and with the lens wide open the conditions were quite challenging to say the least! Having said that I’m very happy with the results, mainly because I got them at it, with a full start to finish sequence to boot! The shot above gives you an idea of the distance involved as this is the full image (apart from my usual 16:10 ratio crop) taken at an effective focal length of 900mm. The following shots were taken from the full sequence and are heavily cropped so there is some noise in them.

It was a day that I will remember for a long time to come as it confirmed that the investment and sacrifices made in buying the kit was very much worth the effort. The sense of achievement with the adrenalin rush that comes with the moment is definately a very positive kind of addiction! It was one of those moments where you walk away feeling very privileged to have witnessed it . Thanks to Richard for pointing out that tree!

Other Showcase episodes:-

Duckling for Breakfast!

Red Kite Fishing

Red Deer Mating