Upton Heath Fire

In the scorchingly hot, dry month of June 2011, Upton Heath near Poole in Dorset caught fire. I happened to be on the Arne peninsula at the time, and recorded this video footage from the opposite side of Poole Harbour:

Fanned by strong winds, the fire spread rapidly to become the largest heathland blaze in Dorset for decades.

Upton Heath was home to some of the UK’s rarest wild creatures, including the smooth snake, sand lizard and dartford warbler.

Over the following few days I documented the aftermath of the fire for the RSPB and Natural England, with permission of the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s team on-site:

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More images of the fire’s aftermath on my photographic site.

Spherical Panoramas

I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine my photographic skills with interactive technology.

A couple of years ago I experimented with panoramic photos taken through a complete 360 degrees, stitched together, and then animated inside a Flash player to enable the user to scroll left or right and explore different aspects of the view. I incorporated these panoramas into a Google Maps interface, to provide a ‘virtual tour’ experience for the website of a local country park and nature reserve.

More recently I’ve taken this to its logical conclusion and stitched together full spherical panoramas, which not only scroll horizontally through 360 degrees, but also up to a ‘zenith’ in the sky and down to a ‘nadir’ beneath the viewer’s hypothetical feet, through 180 vertical degrees.

When viewed in a dedicated Flash or Shockwave player the effect is suitably immersive. Click the images below to be transported (requires Adobe Shockwave).

RSPB Lodmoor

RSPB Lodmoor 360° x 180° Panorama

And this wintry scene from RSPB Arne after an unusual snowy spell:

RSPB Arne

RSPB Arne 360° x 180° Panorama

To make this exercise worthwhile you ideally want plenty of interest in the upper and lower extremities of the scene. Architectural interiors work well for this reason, as do dramatic cloudscapes.

* Shockwave wizardry courtesy of SPi-V – developed by the very talented Aldo Hoeben.

Avocet City

Symbol of the RSPB in the UK, the avocet was extinct as a breeding species by the mid 19th century, only returning to these shores during the second world war after the flooding of East Anglian marshes for coastal defence restored ideal wetland territory for the birds. Since then the reintroduction and careful managment of this scarce habitat elsewhere in the UK has proved to be a major conservation success story.

Hundreds of avocets overwinter on the south coast of England in Poole Harbour – the second-largest natural harbour in the world. In autumn they can often be found huddled together in the lagoon on Brownsea Island close to the busy shipping lanes at the harbour entrance. As winter draws on the birds seem to disperse, favouring the more sheltered harbour channels. The Middlebere channel to the south of the Arne peninsula is a particularly popular location.

Avocets in Poole Harbour

Avocets gather in Poole Harbour

My main goal on this day was to film and photograph some winter finches along the crop trail managed by the RSPB’s wardens on the Arne Reserve. However it quickly became overcast and I wandered off in the direction of Coombe Heath to see what wading birds were on the Middlebere channel instead. By the time I reached the viewing screens the clouds had cleared and a ‘raft’ of several hundred avocets was beautifully lit in the low winter sun:

Avocets

Raft of avocets on the Middlebere channel from Arne

Unfortunately the birds moved off before I could set up my tripod for video but one of the RSPB’s wardens kindly pointed out a sheltered spot near the shore where I could get a closer view of their new location.

As I sat and watched the light on the harbour just got better and better with each passing minute. The calls of the waders could be clearly heard in the still air and, as the tide turned, the raft of birds gradually dispersed in my direction, scouring the mud for tasty morsels:

Hen Harrier Fox Ambush

We’re lucky to have at least two male hen harriers overwintering on the shores of Poole Harbour this year. They’re visually quite distinct from the female hen harrier and other local raptors like the buzzard and marsh harrier. From a distance they might be mistaken for a gull as they patrol above the reed beds.

On this particular afternoon I’d been sat in a freezing hide at Middlebere overlooking a channel off the harbour with several other people. The male hen harrier passed the hide on 2 occasions as it hunted, and we were well pleased.

As the light began to fade and the temperature dropped so my companions began to leave. As dusk approached it was just me and my camera when this fella chose to alight on the neighbouring fenceline:

Hen harrier

I couldn’t quite believe my luck. It was clearly aware of my presence but seemed entirely unbothered. The bird continued to survey the reeds from its vantage point for some minutes. I hurriedly assembled my tripod and mounted the camera to switch to video mode. At which point this happened:

The harrier clearly spotted something edible in the reeds and swooped in to grab it. Either it missed, or the prey got away at the first attempt, but the harrier did not give up and flapped around after it in the reeds.

Seeing this grounded raptor the local fox recognised a golden opportunity and rushed in while its back was turned. Foxy must have come within a couple of feet of success. In the slow motion sequence you can see the harrier attempt to lift off, with the prey in its grasp, but gets snagged on the reeds with almost fatal delay. What appears to be a small mammal, probably a vole, then falls from its clutches as it finally gets airborne.

The slightly dejected, but still rather smug looking fox, then sauntered off right past the hide:

Fox

Wily fox walks away

Osprey Encounter

Ospreys are regular visitors to Poole Harbour in the autumn, on route to Africa where they flee for the winter. These birds are especially well adapted for catching fish and extraordinary to watch.

We’re very lucky to have such magnificent neighbours but I’m not sure that many inhabitants of nearby Poole and Bournemouth realise they exist, let alone where to find them.

The National Trust have a wildlife hide at Middlebere on the edge of a channel running into the harbour. It’s tucked away in the woods opposite the RSPB’s reserve at Arne. In season the ospreys can regularly be seen commuting up and down the channel on fishing expeditions. Great to watch through binoculars and scopes, but for photographic purposes they remain a long way off.

Having watched them from the hide on a few occasions I became familiar with a regular perch nearby. It looked accessible and there was decent cover nearby, so I determined to get closer.

On more than one occasion I observed ospreys perched in the branches of a dead tree after arriving on site. However ospreys are quite happy to spend hours sat in the same location and are difficult to approach. This was the closest I managed to get with a long lens without spooking the bird:

Osprey in dead tree

Perched osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

To get any closer I was going to have to get into position early one morning, before the birds became active, and wait for them to come to me. Several times I hid my gear nearby, tripod-mounted camera at the ready, and waited fruitlessly for a bird to appear.

On this particular occasion I was late to arrive and could see an osprey already in position.

Osprey perched in dead tree

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in dead tree

Having snapped a few long distance shots I might have turned back at this point but they’re beautiful birds to watch, even at a distance.

By the time I’d crept to the next viewing position the osprey had flown, but I seized the chance to scurry into position deep in the reeds, close to the dead tree perch, and hurriedly assembled tripod, camera and improvised camouflage. Pulling the reeds back over my head I settled in for what I thought might be another long, uneventful afternoon.

But within 20 minutes I saw a large bird flying in low over the reedbed. Through the binoculars I could make out a large wriggling shape in its grasp. It could only be a returning osprey!

I ducked down out of sight and watched the perch on the camera’s LCD monitor. Nothing. Wrong branch! Swivelling the lens to the left brought this majestic osprey into focus, a freshly caught bass pinioned in its enormous talons:

Osprey with bass

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with freshly caught bass

Over the next hour I was privileged to watch this mighty bird devouring its meal at close quarters, and captured some memorable stills and video footage in the process:

Canon 550D | Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L | Adobe Premiere Pro

The reedbed was enveloped in low cloud or mist and – together with the hissing sound of the reeds in the gathering wind – the conditions heightened an already surreal, unearthly atmosphere. Something I will never forget.

Wasp Spider Invaders

I stumbled across my first wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) in the summer of 2008. We’d been mowing a road verge with the National Trust and whilst sweeping up the grass noticed this extraordinary looking creature:

Female wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi)

It’s not what you’d expect from a British spider – the distinctive black, white and yellow stripes give it a dramatic appearance, and at 2cm it’s fairly large – something you might imagine encountering in the tropics, shortly before it bit you and ruined your holiday!

Sure enough it’s a foreign invader, more commonly found in the Mediterranean and first recorded on UK shores in 1922. Since then it’s made the south coast its home and, as conditions have warmed, has spread steadily north in recent years.

The Isle of Purbeck is at the southern extreme of its range in this country so it must have been present for some while. The following summer the female spiders were present in large numbers in a meadow at Durlston Country Park outside Swanage and I photographed them a little hastily with my point-and-click at the time.

When I acquired a DSLR camera capable of HD video recording this year, and a decent macro lens, I decided the wasp spider invaders would make a good subject for a short video:

Canon 550D | Canon EF-S 60mm Macro | Adobe Premiere Pro CS4

I couldn’t find the spiders in the places I’d spotted them previously, but while clearing another fenceline with the National Trust we stumbled across this small colony living on the edge of Godlingston Heath on the Studland peninsula.

Over a couple of visits I shot some decent footage and stills at very close range with the 60mm macro lens. The conditions were a little breezy, which makes life difficult at very shallow macro depths of field but I’m pleased with the results.

Wasp spider

Wasp spider macro detail

Try as I might I could not track down the male wasp spider, which is smaller and quite dull in colour. I would also have liked to include some footage of the spiders’ large egg sacs, but the weather turned wet and stormy towards the end of the month and by the time I returned the colony was washed out. Only a couple of females remained and no egg sacs.

Burnet Bodysnatchers

Caterpillars get a raw deal.

It’s true that the lucky winners in life morph into fabulous winged creatures which transcend their earthy origins, but a great many of their brethren seem destined to become nothing more than a convenient snack for any number of passing creatures.

Walking along the Purbeck coastal downland in mid summer I discovered a particularly unpleasant variation on this theme.

I was hoping to photograph some Adonis blue butterflies – a local speciality – but became mesmerised by a collection of tiny cocoons fastened to a grass stem. The more I looked, the more cocoons I found, but all appeared to have been vacated.

I couldn’t think what they might be, until additional exploration eventually uncovered their unfortunate victim nearby: a burnet moth caterpillar, seemingly tied to the stake:

Burnet caterpillar with cocoons

Burnet moth caterpillar parasitised by wasp larvae

This time the larvae were all too evident, as they appeared to be burrowing out of the caterpillar’s skin!

Further research reveals a fascinating tale of nature’s indifferent ingenuity:

The perpetrators in this instance are a species of Braconidae wasp which lay their eggs inside caterpillars.

When they hatch the larvae consume the caterpillar from the inside, but are careful to spare vital organs in order to keep their victim alive. Eventually the larvae cut their way out using specially adapted sharp mouthparts. When they emerge they immediately spin cocoons attached to the caterpillar.

Recent studies suggest that the larvae influence the caterpillar’s behaviour to remain in place and guard the cocoons. Thus brainwashed, the creature may even spin it’s own silk around the cocoons to further protect them. The wasps later hatch and the zombified caterpillar dies of hunger. Ain’t life great!

The Braconidae wasps don’t get it all their way however, as another variety of Ichneumon wasp parasitises the Braconidae pupae inside their own cocoons.

I found an example of this behaviour a bit further along the same stretch of coastal downland. The cocoons had been deserted by their caterpillar protector for some reason, which left them exposed.

Parasitic wasp

Ichneumon wasp parasitising Braconidae wasp pupae