A long anticipated trip to Bourne in Lincolnshire to visit Tom Robinson's Wildlife Photography Hides, produced photographic results as different as 'Night & Day'.
I had visited one of Tom's set ups in Summer 2018 and had an amazing day, spent close up and personal with a Sparrowhawk and her nesting chicks.
A different year, a different season, a different hide and two VERY different outcomes - shooting in the pitch black and then in light so bright, it hurt your eyes! Creatures of the dark and beings of the light, couldn't have provided more contrasting subjects and tested my photographic experience to the limits.
Welcome to the story of an amazing 24 hours.
Gary Jones (middle below) is both a jolly nice chap and also someone who organises and hosts trips to interesting locations for the wildlife photographer. I've worked with Gary a few times now and booked with him to experience Tom's Hides. This time we were joined by Charles, another of Gary's clients. (I clearly didn't get the email about the Beanie Hat !!)
Tom's set up is very different to most cold and draughty hides, sporting wall to wall carpets, upholstered seating, great set up points for your camera and most importantly at this time of year, a warming wood burner to keep the exterior sub-zero temperatures at bay, during the long cold nights (and days!).
We settled in for Part One of a full 24 hour shoot. The first targets for the overnight session, were to be Tawny Owls and (perhaps) a Fox.
The opportunity to shoot wild Otters and Herons at night from the other side of the hide had reduced to virtual zero, due to the lovely pond being frozen solid - a good excuse to return in the spring, I say!
The light faded and darkness descended, our camera's were linked remotely to the extremely professional flash system and all we needed were the Owls to show.
We didn't have to wait long!
The posts are baited with the Owls natural prey of Mice and Voles and they swoop down to pick up this supplementary feeding, supporting them during the colder months and encouraging them to visit a spot with some predictability, providing some great photographic opportunities.
I like both the 'action' shots when the Tawny Owl attacks its 'prey', wings splayed and spread for extra balance, as well as the calmer perched shots.
The shot below really made me smile when I noticed the (dead) mouse-bait at the Owls feet. Camouflaged against the Owl's feathers, it's almost like a game of 'Spot the Mouse'. There's no avoiding the birds carnivore reality at the end of what for many has been a human 'Veganuary'. Wildlife photography can be 'red in tooth and claw' and not always for the squeamish.
We enjoyed the spectacle of the lovely Owls visiting and began to hope for a visit from the vixen that had been photographed by Gary, the night before. He had managed some lovely shots including a smashing back-lit rim shot, silhouetting the fox in a really interesting photograph.
Hopes began to fade however, as the evening wore on, until we caught a glimpse of a fox, no more than 10m from the hide. Good practice is to stay absolutely silent and still, which despite our excitement we managed well, but to no avail as the Fox seemed extremely cautious and declined to stay and feed, (we later decided that perhaps this was a different individual animal and not familiar with the environment in which it found itself).
Disappointing not to get some shots, but that's wildlife for you; it doesn't matter how well you prepare, these are WILD creatures and if they choose not to cooperate, then there's nothing else to do than to make another coffee and hope for another sight of the Tawny Owl, before turning in for the night.
The few remaining pieces of 'Owly food' were hoovered up by this visitor as the snow began to fall, dusting the winter sky with diamond sparkles.
Charles and I conducted a late night 'fox hopeful' vigil until 02:00, when we concluded that it was time to turn in. I enjoyed a few hours sleep, gratefully comfortable in the high quality kit that Sarah (reluctantly) provided from her Glastonbury pack stash.
The benefits of sleeping in the hide are that you are fully 'in place' at dawn and can watch the sunrise, without disturbing the wildlife with your human clodhopping around.
In reality, it had been so cold outside overnight that the wildlife was slow to wake up and we feared for our chances when we saw that the pond was completely frozen and covered in a light dusting of snow.
There was however a small hole in the ice near to the perch favoured by the Kingfisher, whose territory we were watching. A little prodding with a stick, opened up this potential feeding hole in the large pond and we crossed our fingers that the resident bird would cotton on to the opportunity.
As the sunlight hit the perch and the hole in the pond-ice, we became increasingly desperate for the Kingfisher to arrive, as the light was incredible and it's not often that you get the chance to shoot these beautiful birds in snowy and icy conditions.
Fortunately, our frayed nerves were calmed when the beautiful female Kingfisher flew in (red lower beak identifies), peeping her call as she landed.
She got to work quickly and had dived, caught and dispatched 4 fish in seconds.
We were to be treated to a day of regular visits, in the brightest light, with an amazing natural setting, where the only challenge was to choose which camera body to pair with which lens at what settings, to capture the action.
It's so unusual to shoot in such bright light on a winters day in the UK, that it took us all a while to adapt. Somehow we did and we were all delighted with the shots we managed. Here's just a few of my favourites from my own collection.
We kept a regular watch for the local young Sparrowhawk, reported to have visited the day before, but perhaps it had chosen to dine at a different restaurant that day, as our lookout failed to catch a glimpse.
By way of a consolation prize, we got some great close up views of the Greater-spotted Woodpecker, who popped in to say hello throughout the day.
The moment came when we reluctantly had to leave to make way for the next visitors to use the hide.
I should say thanks to Gary for arranging the session and for the endless stream of coffee and advice he supplied to both me and Charles (great to meet you too Charles!).
Tom Robinson delivered another extraordinary Wildlife Photography experience in comfortably (see what I did there!), the most luxurious facilities I've ever experienced for such a shoot.
I'll certainly be back later in the year in pursuit of the Otters, Herons and Fox's, hopefully when the harsh British winter has softened into a warm spring.
I couldn't rate both Tom and Gary any higher and suggest that if you haven't yet, you get in touch with them to arrange your next wonderful WILDlife photography experience ... I intend to take my own advice as soon as possible!!