Marsh Harriers in Flight

Marsh Harriers In Flight (or the way to madness)

In May of this year, we decided to visit the Norfolk Broads.  Our first day was rather cool and overcast and we visited Ranworth Broad which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.  There wasn’t much to see although there were Grebes by the visitor centre.


The second day was much brighter and we headed for the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen.  Here there was a lot of activity – ducks, geese, herons, grebes, damselflies and swans were very much in evidence. The reed beds there stretch over a large part of the reserve and we could see Marsh Harriers and Hobbies hunting and displaying in the distance.  They were fairly far away but I hoped that they might come close enough to photograph.

We continued to walk around the reserve and stopped to photograph some damselflies and then a family of swans.  Then, right in front of me, a marsh harrier came up from the reeds clutching its prey.  I managed to get the exposure and the aperture changed and snapped away.  I could see the focus point locking on to the bird and managed to get several shots which looked good through the eyepiece. However, when I checked them in the back of the camera, I could see they were not sharp.  In my rush to get the shots, I had forgotten to check the shutter speed and at 1/500th it was nowhere near fast enough to catch a bird in flight.  I was so disappointed.  We continued our walk and did manage to photograph more marsh harriers, but they were a good distance away and I had my lens at 600 which is the extent of its range and still had to zoom in on processing.  They were never going to be very sharp.  However, it was a good day and we did see lots.

The next day we visited Horsey Windpump.  We noticed wildlife boat trips so decided to go on one.  After a debate as to which lenses to put on our cameras, we both decided that as the boat would be reasonably full the big lenses might be awkward to use.  I took my 18-200 Nikon lens.  Of course, that was a big mistake.  The first thing we saw was a pair of avocets flying in front of the boat, followed by a flight of 6 cranes, a hobby and then marsh harriers that actually flew right over the boat.  I did get shots of them but too small in the frame.  However, my technique was better, and they were sharp and well-exposed.

The day after that, we visited Hickling Broad which again is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.  Right lenses this time but no marsh harriers near enough to catch.  Plenty of other things to see though.

Still brooding on making a mess of the first attempt at Strumpshaw, I suggested revisiting later in the week.  Another lovely day with plenty to see but still no luck.  We decided to walk round to the tower hide to see what was going on there.  Again, marsh harriers were hunting in the distance.  Then other people in the hide got very excited (and noisy) as they could see a pair of marsh harriers flying low over the nearby reed bed.  They were trying to drive a pair of cranes from their nest.  After each pass, the cranes’ heads would come up and then down again.  Also at the same time, the Harriers spooked a bittern which flew across.  I managed to get some photographs of the harriers in the distance.

It was getting late, and we were about to leave when a Marsh Harrier came out of nowhere and flew reasonably close to the hide.  Luckily, I still had my camera up at the window and I managed to get a couple of shots before it soared away.  They looked sharp and reasonable in the back of the camera and so they actually proved to be when I processed them.  However, when I did start processing them, I realised there was a problem.  I had accidentally managed to move my white balance on the camera to the tungsten setting and 20 or so images had a colour cast.  However, as I always shoot in RAW, I was able to correct that easily in Lightroom.  Here is one of the images I took.  The aperture was set at 6.3; exposure compensation at 1/3; focal length 500 and finally, shutter speed 1/2500.


Someone once told me that wildlife photography was relatively easy and that wildlife photographers had only to sit in hides to get their images.  Sometimes it does work like that but in this case, it took me 12 hours over 4 days before I got the shot I wanted.

Christine Swalwell