1. Ruby-tailed Wasp
This dazzling gem of an insect conjures up the image of an exotic species, perhaps living in the depths of some tropical forest far away from the monotone shores of the UK. However, the Ruby-tailed Wasp is actually a relatively common species in this country: it can be found on warm sunny days from April to August in many back gardens, particularly around stone walls, piles of wood or on waste ground.
These social wasp species earn themselves the alternate name of a ‘Cuckoo Wasp’, due to their reproductive habits: the females sneak inside the nests of other hymenopteran insects such as Mason Bees, where an egg is laid from which larvae emerge and proceed to devour the contents of the nest.
Finding these stunning invertebrates can be tricky, but photographing them often proves even trickier: when they land – which isn’t all too often – they move with a constant jerky gait, pausing only occasionally to soak up the sun.
To capture a reasonable image of this small insect, you would need to use an SLR macro lens such as a Sigma 105mm f2.8 (used to take this picture), and it takes patience and perseverance before bagging a decent image. Unfortunately for photographers, the wasps are generally most active in the early afternoon on bright sunny days – just when the light is at its worst for taking pictures.
To counteract this, try using a higher ISO and casting a little shade over the insect with your body, which can really help to bring out the vivid colouration of the thorax and abdomen.
2. European Shag
Having weathered out the harsh winter conditions out at sea, early spring sees the return of these hefty seabirds to our coastal cliffs.
Shags begin pairing up in February and March, developing a beautiful quiff-like crest during courtship, which is accompanied by a glistening green colouration to the body that sheens in the spring sunshine.
Once pairs are established, they set about gathering driftwood sticks, seaweed and scraps of rope to bundle together into a nest in which to raise their prehistoric-looking progeny.
It is a great time of year to photograph this species, particularly if you live anywhere near the coast. Sitting at a cliff edge and watching the busy activity of breeding pairs can produce many photographic opportunities – try capturing flight shots of birds as they return to their nests with large twigs and sticks, or the raucous behaviour as pairs squabble on their ledges.
Try being creative too – I took this black-and-white image on a calm spring morning, silhouetting the birds against a silky smooth sea.
3. Green Tiger Beetle
As conditions warm up from late April onwards, keep a look out for this impressive ground beetle around wasteland, coastal cliff edges and dry earth banks.
Most commonly seen on calm, sunny days, the Green Tiger Beetle sports an impressive pair of mandibles which it uses to break up prey after high speed pursuit on long, agile legs.Their large eyes help in spotting prey and evading predators…but this also makes photographing them something of a challenge!
Often first encountered skittering away on their long legs or buzzing up on noisy wings, they rarely pause for pictures. It takes time to follow an individual until it rests for a little while – at this point you must approach very slowly, easing in with camera and macro lens at the ready!
Head-on images can be particularly captivating, revealing the insect’s formidable jaws and delicate sensilla hairs carpeting the legs and underside.
Using a high aperture value for macro photography such as this is essential to ensure that as many parts of the subject are in focus. Try a value of f/9.0 to start with, and adjust the ISO to suite differing lighting conditions.
4. Northern Wheatear
One of the quintessential spring migrants that is welcomed back to our shores from their African winter grounds…the Wheatear needs no introduction, and makes itself home across a broad range of habitats in the UK: from coastal cliffs to upland heath, mountain valleys to agricultural farmland.
Undertaking one of the largest migrations of any bird size-for-size, some Wheatear populations breeding in North America and Alaska will travel all the way to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter – a distance of over 7,000 km! Here in the UK, the first birds arrive around early-March to establish territories, and provide a perfect subject for photography.
Often glimpsed as no more than a bright white flash is as their tail-end disappears over bank, picking a spot to sit and wait for birds to come and feed is often the best way to photograph these handsome chats.
Try using high shutter speeds (over 2000th/sec) to freeze song-flighting males, or capture the birds in their habitat by zooming out a little and incorporating a spring scene into the image, such as this carpet of blossoming Thrift.
5. Starry Skies
The UK boasts some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe, with a number of designated dark sky zones recognized internationally – Sark Dark Sky Island and Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve to name two examples.
Wales actually has the largest proportion of designated dark sky areas of any country in the world! As the landscape bursts into colour with the blossoming of spring flowers like woodland Bluebells and coastal Thrift, spring is a good time to try capturing some captivating astrological scenes before the nights are too short.
Whilst in the muggy depths of cities we can make out perhaps 100 stars, true areas of dark skies can hold over 1000 visible stars, in addition to the superb Milky Way.
To photograph a starry night sky, there are a wealth of options to chose from: using an intervalometer to produce star trails and timelapses or perhaps waiting for a moonlit night to illuminate the landscape and add interest to the foreground.
Whatever you chose to photograph, you’ll need to use a few basic settings for night-time imaging:
- High ISO (around 6400 if there is no moon)
- Long shutter speed (between 20 and 30 seconds is usually sufficient)
- Manual focus (the ‘infinity’ mark on lenses usually produces sharp focus on stars)
- A low f/number to ensure as much light as possible is gathered during the exposure
6. Meadow Pipit
When we think of spring, the humble Meadow Pipit is unlikely to be the first species that comes to mind. However, this streaky, buff-coloured pipit is almost as migratory as species like the Chiffchaffs which are such a celebrated harbinger of the season.
In the autumn, much of the UK’s 900,000 breeding birds join populations from Iceland and north-east Europe to winter in south-western regions of the continent, such as France and Spain, with some even reaching North Africa.
In early spring, birds arrive at coastal sites in large numbers, from where they disperse to their breeding sites. Here, males perform their superb song-flight display on territory, taking on a parachute-like shape and plummeting to the ground whilst producing an ascending crescendo of chorus.
Why not try capturing some interesting images of these under-appreciated birds this spring?
Try using high shutter speeds to freeze the birds in flight; keep an eye out for pairs gathering grass and other nesting material, as this can make for some interesting images – but make sure you aren’t too close to their nest site.
7. Lackey caterpillars
Springtime sees a plethora of moth and butterfly larvae emerging to take advantage of the abundance of plant life that is on offer – a rich food source if the various toxins and chemicals can be avoided.
Although it is worth keeping an eye out for any caterpillars, a particularly noticeable species and one which proves rather photogenic is that of the Lackey moth.
Lackey moths are a member of the Lasiocampidae family, and their caterpillars assume a striking coloration pattern to warn would-be predators of their distaste: racing stripes of blue, white, orange and black run the length of the body, becoming more distinct and vivid with every moult.
A dense covering of hair and striking blue face with dark eye-like patches adds to their bizarre appearance.
The caterpillars live out their earliest instar stages within a silken tent, which can support thirty or more individuals. As the larvae increase in size, the need for this insulated home is reduced, and they begin wandering further afield in search of food.
Various aspects of their behavior can be great to photograph: from the head-flicking motion assumed by the whole colony when threatened by intruders, to the intricate detail of the patterning and hairs adorning their body.
Once again, it is useful to use a reasonable macro lens to photograph these beasties, although this isn’t essential: a small digital camera or smart phone can be sufficient to capture images when large numbers of the caterpillars gather together to form interesting patterns and shapes.
8. Small Tortoiseshell
Having overwintered in crevices, sheds and alcoves in an adult stage, the Small Tortoiseshell is one of our first butterflies to emerge in March and April. This attractive species is one of the commonest butterflies in Britain, with a distribution stretching from the far northern Orkney and Shetland Isles south to the balmy shores of Cornwall.
Any warm sunny day in the coming months should reward with views of well-marked individuals seeking a rich nectar reward.
Photographing butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell can bring much enjoyment. If you are able to find a rich foodplant such as a Buddleia, then it may just be a case of patience before an insect turns up.
Pictures of butterflies on flowers are perhaps a little cliché, however, and so try and use your imagination to produce some more interesting photographs…instead of focusing on the butterfly with a close-up macro lens, why not go the other direction and use a wide angle lens?
Try finding an attractive landscape and see if you can capture the insect in its environment, incorporating elements of the background into the image. Although much harder to achieve, the results can be highly rewarding.
One of those birds that truly epitomises the coast: no stretch of shoreline is complete without at least a few pairs of feisty Oystercatchers dive-bombing intruders and issuing their piercing calls with persistent vigour.
Spring is a good time to catch up with these charismatic birds, which have spent the winter feeding on the rich invertebrate life of our various coastal estuaries and mudflats.
From mid-April through to late July, Oystercatchers fiercely defend their territory and nest sites around the coast, and can make for some great photographic opportunities.
Flight shots are a choice image to attempt, but turning down the shutter speed to between 1/80 and 1/250 can produce some interesting results that stand out from the conventional ‘frozen’ flight shots. A particular challenge for photographers is to capture their unique feeding habits: they use their stout bill to either prize open bivalve molluscs, or by severing the adductor muscles with hard blows.
10. Little owl
This diminutive owl species lends itself perfectly to the British landscape, with its secretive nature and brown, mottled plumage. However, many people might not realise that Little Owls do not actually belong in the UK – they are an introduced species, just the same as Rabbits, Ring-necked Parakeets and Ruddy Ducks.
Nevertheless, they don’t seem to be having an adverse effect on our native fauna, and so for the time being provide an immense amount of enjoyment to thousands of birders and photographers who are lucky enough to glimpse their eye-catching stare.
Catching up with these owls can be very hard indeed, but territorial pairs tend to become quite vocal in the spring, uttering their mewing calls at dusk.
They can often be found perched on the tops of banks or hiding in gorse bushes – watch from a distance to begin with, then see if the birds are comfortable wit your patience and approach slowly.