The Atlantic Puffin

These charming seabirds can be watched in a few coastal locations around the U.K. with Bempton Cliffs being perhaps the most well known mainland location. There are however some really great island seabird colonies to visit, where Puffins have a significant presence. All of my images for this article were taken on a fantastic trip to Skomer island, located off the SW coast of Wales. (The Farne islands are great for northern England and consider visiting Sumburgh Head on Shetland or the Isle of May, if you are in Scotland).

A Puffin keeps a watchful eye outside its burrow.

These cute seabirds, with their strikingly coloured bill & worried expression, stand about 7 to 10 inches tall & weigh in at just 500 grams. They are evolved for swimming & diving more than for flight, using up to 400 wing beats per minute to achieve a decent top speed of a little over 50 mph. Life span is about 20 years.
An Atlantic Puffin returns from sea with a beak full of sand eels

Whilst much of their year is spent out at sea they must come to land in spring for their breeding season. This is when they sport their bright colours & striking plumage. Puffins nest in burrows. About 10% of the World population breed around the UK, that’s about 500,000 birds. This April about 25,000 Puffins were counted on Skomer. Breeding is a tough business and statistically a pair of Puffins chance of getting just one chick to fledging is about 0.5 to 0.7. One hazard is predation by Gulls & Skuas, not only are the chicks at direct risk but the parents have to run the gauntlet of Gulls attempting to make them drop their precious sand eel cargo.

Sand eels are the primary food for Puffins. The Puffins have reverse facing barbs inside their mouths & on their tongues, this allows the Puffins to typically scoop up about 10 sand eels with each dive. At 3 or 4 years of age Puffins find a mate, they will bond for life. Once the female Puffin has laid her single egg, each adult will take turns incubating the egg for about 40 days, after which it will hatch. Now starts the busy task of feeding the young Puffling who will fledge when large enough, a minimum of 45 days later.
One Sand Eel carrying Puffin passes closely overhead another.

As the Puffin parents busy back & forth with bills full of sand eels, dodging the marauding gulls & avoiding collisions, its a great spectacle to behold (always keeping the welfare of the birds upmost of course).
A Puffin sets off out to sea after more food for its young chicks.

Once the young Pufflings have fledged (mid-summer) the Puffins will start to disperse again, out on the open Oceans until next spring. Puffins are considered to be a vulnerable species Whose numbers are falling. There are various research projects attempting to find out the causes. One possibility is that the supply of sand eels is dwindling due to overfishing by humans another factor may be changing sea temperatures due to global warming. The RSPB currently (2017) has a call out for pictures of feeding Puffins, to help with their research.
A closer view of the Atlantic Puffin’s exquisite markings

We had a great day on Skomer, I would heartily recommend it to all nature lovers. The Puffins (Fratercula artica) are fabulous. You really do need to be very careful to stick to the paths because there are fragile burrows everywhere. The Puffins are so photogenic and it’s a nice challenge to catch the perfect flight shot. Also, long focal lengths are not required which is great if you’re going to walk the few miles around the island on a hot summers day. Here’s a small gallery of a few of the day’s photos including the above (do look at Natures Universe if you’d like to purchase images) :

One of my favourite walks – Y garn, Glyderau loop

This is one of my favourite walks. A circular loop from the Youth Hostel by Llyn Ogwen, taking in some of Snowdonia’s fine mountain peaks.

Do be aware that some of the going is quite rough, there are sections of scrambling on scree and that in winter you are likely to need crampons & ice axe. That said, it’s an exhilarating mountain walk with fine views.

As one leaves the car parking area and follows the well made path to Llyn Idwal, it’s great to view the imposing cliffs above you with the knowledge that you’ll soon be walking above them. Upon reaching the lake we turn right to head up the slopes of Y Garn. This path is steep & particular care is needed in icy conditions. As you climb, do take time to look around and take in the views; looking east across Llyn Ogwen with Tryfan on its righthand shore or looking north along the Nant Ffrancon valley and out to sea.

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Nant Ffrancon with snow tipped Carneddau

Upon reaching the summit of Y Garn, fine panoramic views are available, looking over most of Snowdonia. Again take in Tryfan to the east or look south-west to Snowdon & her relatives.

Now we must descend about 250m southwards to Llyn y Cwn before ascending the shaded scree slope to the summit of Glyder Fawr, the highest point on this walk. The rough & jagged rocks of Glyder Fawr provide quite the dramatic viewpoint. Now we can enjoy the high level walk eastwards from Glyder Fawr, via Castell y Gwynt to the similarly rocky summit of Glyder Fach.

Whilst it is possible to descend almost directly via the eastern scree slope of Glyder Fach to Bwlch Tryfan, it may be more enjoyable to take the slightly longer route to Bwlch Tryfan by diverting towards Llyn Caseg-fraith, as shown on the map.

Once we have reached Bwlch Tryfan, follow the rock strewn path downhill past Llyn Bochlwyd & its associated waterfall and then all the way back to where we began.

In total a very enjoyable walk of about 7 miles with a climb of around 3,300 ft. Whilst timing will vary upon your pace & how much you stop to enjoy / photograph the views, it is best to allow most of a winter’s day to complete this – say 7 hours.

Below is my map for this walk, embedded via Viewranger:

Dawn to the Soul

Dawn to the Soul

A beauteous scene, dawn upon lake.
A strong comparison, perhaps to make.
Moral ideals, versus acts that you take.

Walk to the edge, tread with care.
Cast eyes down, take a stare.
Open your soul, if you dare.

In that reflection, what do you see.
Angel or Devil, what might you be.
Good deed or bad, how much the fee.

To yourself, you might lie.
On Reaper approach, tis time to die.
Meet it with honour, or inexorable sigh.

Dawn to the Soul

Listen to a reading of the poem:

Gaming Photography

Game Photography – is an interesting & growing new art form.

Here’s an image that I made just for the fun of experimentation.

Captured from CDPR’s The Witcher 3 using Nvidia’s new ‘Ansel’ interface. The resulting 360deg image was then projected using a small world projection in GoPro’s VR Player 2.

Thus we end up with an image where Geralt stands atop his own game world. The possibilities are intriguing 😀

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Geralt on top of the world.

Photographing Jupiter with her moons

Beyond the Sun & the Moon  , some of the brightest objects in the skies are a few of our fellow planets. It is quite reasonable & fun to set out on an adventure photographing them from your own back yard. The photograph below demonstrates how this can be done with a standard camera setup.

Moon & Venus Conjunction plus Jupiter

The photograph was taken on a 35mm camera with only a 200mm lens attached. Tripod mounted, 1/15sec f2.8 ISO1250 it shows our moon and Venus  bottom left and Jupiter in the top right.

But what if we’d like to be a little more ambitious, perhaps we would like to focus on planet Jupiter and include some of her moons in the photograph. That too can be achieved without much complication. Within reason you’ll need a lens with a bit more focal length for this one, a 35mm equivalent of 300mm should suffice but more would be better. Again tripod mount for stability and shoot away. The next picture was taken at 700mm focal length on a Canon 300D using an exposure of 2 seconds at ISO 400 f5.6.

Jupiter @ 700mm

To my taste, one of the problems with this is that Jupiter is over exposed and so we see no details on her. But if we reduce the exposure by much then her moons will just fade away into the dark night sky.

So if we want to show details on Jupiter and show her 4Galilean moons  in the same image, we’ll need to find a workaround.

The simplest solution is to capture 2 separate photographs one exposed for the Galilean Moons and one exposed for the planet Jupiter herself. However to capture some worthwhile planetary details we really need to up our focal length & our light gathering capability. This is where we ideally need to jump to a telescope and I’d suggest 150mm (6 inches) of aperture is the minimum. An aperture of 150mm is indeed what I shall work with here; in the guise of a small Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain  telescope.

To further complicate the matter we’ll be trying to focus & photograph at an imaging scale that is greatly affected by movements & density changes in our atmosphere. This ‘seeing’ will vary moment by moment like the heat haze that you see above objects on a summer’s day. A solution to this is to take many individual images, or more simply, to video the scene and process the best frames in a computer afterwards. This allows us to seize the best moments of seeing and to discard the rest. So let’s check what we’ll need:

  • Telescope with at least 150mm aperture, more is better
  • Equatorial mount to counteract Earth’s rotation (otherwise the planet may move out of our video frame)
  • Some sort of video recording camera
  • A way of magnifying the image
  • A computer to save the video on to

To record the video many people use a modified webcam or a purpose built planetary imaging camera. These cameras simply slot in where the telescope eyepiece would go and so a standard Barlow lens can be added to provide some further magnification of the scene. The modified webcam route is a very affordable option & can yield some good results.

However, in this instance I am going to use a different technique. An excellent piece of software called EOS Movie Record has been developed. This freeware will allow you to record the LiveView image from a Canon EOS DSLR direct to computer and critically for this occasion it can be recorded whilst the x5 zoom is invoked. So I shall be using my 5D MkII with a x2 extender attached to the back of the scope with an adapter. This will provide 3000mm focal length and the resulting image will be recorded at x5mag on to a laptop PC.

Now that we’re all setup the first thing to do is to record a short piece of video with the exposure bright enough to capture the 4 Galilean moons.

Next we want to reduce the exposure sufficiently to see details in Jupiter’s atmosphere. It is important that we only change exposure, any other changes could alter the relative positions of the moons in the previous video to the position & orientation of Jupiter in this video. Once happy with the exposure, record a video of the scene, perhaps 30s – 90s of video.

Assuming that both video recordings have succeeded, we now need to process our captured data. For the high exposure video with moons, I simply captured a good clean frame to still image. For the lower exposure detailed Jupiter video, we need a piece of software to select and stack the best frames from the video. Registax is a freeware program that will do just that for us.

After stacking the best 500 frames of a 4000 frame video, the image below is what can be seen of Jupiter; the seeing was not particularly good but there are still sufficient details to work with.

Planet Jupiter

Now we need to combine this image with our high exposure frame capture, to include the Galilean Moons.

Any decent image editing program that features ‘layers’ will do for this job, I use Adobe Photoshop. Open both images and copy one into the other as a new layer. Make sure that your imaging scale & orientation are consistent at all times, so that the moons are in the correct  positions. Align the two Jupiters up and then use layer blending & masks to achieve the best result for your image. Apply any final tweaks such as local contrast adjustment and save the final image.

The last thing to do is to identify which moon is which. There are various programs available on the internet, one specifically for this job is JupSat95.

Below is the final image:

Jupiter's Moons

After all our capture & processing work we now have a detailed picture of planet Jupiter and her 4 Galilean Moons. In this particular photograph we have, from left to right Callisto, Europa, Jupiter, Io, Ganymede.

If you have access to a larger telescope such as an 11 or 14 inch SCT then the planetary details available to you will be significantly greater than those shown above; but I hope that I’ve demonstrated that even a relatively small 6 inch telescope can yield a worthwhile Jupiter image that can be processed to give an interesting scene.