Words and images by Cheryl Surry
Whilst every nature and wildlife photographer knows of places that are good for particular species and certain times of the year, none are guaranteed. In fact there are very few places that can guarantee an appearance by the local wildlife on a daily basis. One location that flouts this rule of wildlife photography is Gigrin Farm in Powys, Wales.
Gigrin has long been a favourite haunt for photography for the reason that no matter what the weather or in which month you choose to visit, at 2pm GMT or thereabouts you will see red kites. And not just one or two, but many more, and sometimes in excess of 200!
The first time you visit Gigrin it is easy to be overwhelmed by the action that unfolds in front of you. The circling and diving of kites can be incessant and random, or so it seems. However, if you observe the behaviour of the kites or take advice from a regular visitor a little order can be derived from the chaos that will help you achieve better images.
The sequence of events is nearly always the same though the timings may vary with the weather.
About twenty minutes before feeding a small number of kites will begin gathering above the adjacent hillside. At 2pm GMT (3pm BST) the noise of a tractor moving from the farm buildings to the field will be heard above the calls from the crows, ravens and kites.
The tractor is driven by Chris, who now runs the feeding station on a daily basis, and is the herald of the arrival of the food and the start of the main action.
It also signals your last chance to make sure that your equipment is properly adjusted for the task in hand. For me this involves a final check of the exposure by taking a reading from the grass and then a couple of test exposures of the field, sky and a combination of tree and sky. A quick confirmation that the histograms are not skewed one way or the other, a check of the shutter speed and an ISO adjustment if required and I’m ready. My preferred shutter speed is in the region of 1/800th, faster is good, but slower makes for a more challenging afternoon.
Now it is just a matter of waiting for the kites to feed. First the crows and ravens will flock onto the recently dispersed food and quite often nothing else seems to be happening. Indeed it can sometimes take up to thirty minutes before the first kite will make a swooping dive to pick up a piece of meat. Patience is a key commodity at Gigrin as will become apparent later.
The feeding is hierarchical. The older kites will arrive first and the younger ones must wait their turn. Knowing this explains the apparent pause after the initial frenzy of activity. During the lull many of the other visitors will leave, do not be tempted to leave with them as you will miss the best of the skirmishes between kites, crows, ravens and buzzards.
After the pause which can be as long as thirty minutes, the younger kites will begin feeding. There may well be more pauses in the activity, but feeding will continue on and off long after the centre is closed to the public at 5pm.
Shooting from the standard visitor hides is more than possible, and until recently was about the only option available. The main downside to the visitor hides has always been the restricted view and for longer lenses the restricted range of movement afforded by the balancing the camera and lens on a beag bag on the sill of the window. It is also sometimes hard to find enough elbow room as visitors can be crowded in two deep on busy days. So the good news is that a centre that has always been good for photography, just got better.
The new purpose built photography hides offer a far better option for those with lenses of 400mm and above and are really the only option if you wish to use a tripod. Both have open front aspects and enough floor space to accommodate tripods, something that was never possible in the normal hides. The floor is solidly built and was designed with videography in mind where vibrations can be translated onto the film sequence. So they are stable enough with care by all parties to accomodate 4 or 5 people without disturbance.
The weather can be as changeable at Gigrin as anywhere else in the UK, however, some of my own personal favourite images are those taken in "bad" conditions. The addition of raindrops in a flight shot can real lift it and make it a little different from the normal shots seen from Gigrin of red kites against blue sky. Whatever the actual conditions may be like for rain, snow or blue skies, one thing that will aid your photography is a westerley wind. With the wind in a westerly direction the majority of kites will pick up their piece of meat and fly towards the hides. If it is an easterly then you can expect to capture lots of images of kites flying away from you.
You've read the article, now go take some fantastic images. You can then upload the pictures, plus any advice and suggestions you have into the dedicated Photo Month forum for everyone at ePHOTOzine to enjoy.