Rory champion photography


Across desert and ocean: House martins arrive home

Many people keep in their diary the date for which they expect 'their' house martins to arrive back home following their 7,000 mile trip back to cooler climates for the UK summer. As I looked expectantly to the skies like Dumbo's mother, on D+1, +2, +3 and eventually some two weeks past their usual arrival, I noticed others in the area had already arrived home, darting around the fields hunting for insects to regain calories lost in their herculean voyage across, amongst other obstacles, the Sahara Desert. There was an element of relief when they did eventually return, it somehow makes the springtime more complete -  house and its surroundings are not the dwelling for just human inhabitants, but a plethora of other creatures which go their separate ways and make their own arrangements to survive the winter. Cousins to the swallow and swift, these darting birds feed on the wing on insects, which is why, in the UK's winter months, they migrate to the warmer climate of Africa.
A house martin catching insects to feed its young

A house martin catching insects to feed its young

As July approaches the adult pairs have already bred and spend much of the day swooping around the skies gathering insects for their young, which will need to have fully-fledged by autumn to prepare themselves for the migration south, however with good weather this should only take a few weeks. House martins often depart in groups, perhaps in families, as due to their relatively short lifespan adults are only likely to make the trip once. Therefore their young must somehow know the way back. How they go about this pan-continental navigation is still largely a mystery to us. In fact, of the hundreds of thousands of house martins that have been ringed, only two were found, and in completely different areas. It is therefore thought that house martins spread themselves liberally along equatorial regions.

Photographing house martins

Photographing house martins is a challenge. Even with reasonable gear, you still need good weather in order for there to be enough light to use the fastest available shutter speeds for such a species which is virtually unpredictable in its movement and direction. The only thing which is for certain is that it will be moving very swiftly. The following shots were at 2000-3000/s, 300mm f6.3-8, depending on whether the sun went behind a cloud or not. You will need a sharp lens to ensure reasonable results, as your images are highly likely to suffer from some sort of motion and/or focus blur, not to mention noise at higher ISOs. Your only ally is that, when feeding their young, house martins will return to their nest every few minutes, so you will have ample opportunity to repeat your shots. It is very difficult to track house martins at close quarters by looking through the view finder, human reactions are just too slow, so my method was to catch them as they swooped down from the next, with my camera already focused at 7 metres. Only when they entered this zone of focus did I start shooting, taking into account a few split seconds of delay for when my finger pressed the shutter release and the shutter actually releasing.

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