Hiding out with Dale

Siskin by Dale Powell

Many folk will have noticed either in club competitions or in his facebook group posts Dale Powell’s splendid bird images- mostly taken from his own hide in the garden. In the second of our “summer shorts” items, Fiona finds out about Dale, his hide and his passion for birds.  

Q: Tell us a bit about your interest in photography in general, please, Dale.

A: I picked up my first camera when I was 12, roughly the same time as I got interested in birds. I never made the connection between the two at that time though. That camera was a little Kodak 110. I lost it somewhere and never picked a camera up again until 2004 when I bought a Canon compact. It was only in 2010 though that I got really interested in photography and bought my first DSLR, a Canon 350D.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

 Q: What got you interested in photographing birds and is your interest in Nature restricted to our avian friends?
A:  My interest in birds started when I was about 12. A friend of mine who was a year older than me really knew his birds and for such a young person, his knowledge was almost encyclopaedic and he was totally self taught. I picked up the books too, got interested, joined the ‘Bird Club’ at school and my interest in wild birds stems from there. My interest in photographing birds started a few years ago, when I visited Lochwinnoch and the hide there. I promised myself I would get my own hide in the garden after that and eventually, I did. A few visits to Alan Mcfadyen’s hides also prompted the build of my own hide.  I wanted to do it for myself, all my own work.

I love wildlife in general though, it’s not just birds. I concentrate mainly on photographing birds, at the moment. Birds just happen to be my main focus. We are also lucky to live where we do, wildlife is so abundant in these parts. I’m yet to concentrate on a mammal project but it is something I intend to do. My current project is a kingfisher pair that are nesting locally. I’m still trying to find their fishing perches, as photographing kingfishers at the nest site (or more correctly, disturbing a nesting pair at or near the nest) is against the law as they are Schedule 1 birds. It’s a quite a task as kingfishers will fish over a mile away from the nest. I think birds are my main passion at the moment but I would like to try a mammal project soon.

Q: How would you describe your hide? Is it very professional?

Heavens, no. My hide is basically an old summerhouse that we bought for my daughter, Tegan, in 2014. It was intended as a play house for her but she never really used it. In January 2018, I noticed the roof was about to give way, so I mulled whether to pull it down or refurbish it. I decided to dismantle it, rebuild it on another part of the garden which had better natural lighting angles. I replaced the roof, gave it a lick of paint, cut 2 hatches in the side, used some netting to cover the hatches so that the birds couldn’t see me inside, put some old garden chairs in and hey presto, a hide. Outside I have a feeder with all the usual food types, fat balls, a general seed and a secret cocktail of my own that the finches love. I put out natural looking perches for the birds to perch on before they go to the feeders, and that’s when I get my shots. I also have a basic reflection pool, that in fairness, I rarely use as it’s rarely still enough for the water to be calm. I have plans, maybe this year, to make a more permanent reflection pool and make better use of it.

Q: What are the advantages to setting up a hide?

A: For me personally, the main advantage of having a hide is that it’s literally at my back door and I can get decent photos in my own garden. I love this aspect of it as we have a busy household and I can’t always travel to far flung places. I used to sit at home sometimes, thinking about the thousands I have invested in camera gear and not being able to use it as much as I’d have liked. Now I can.

Another advantage though, and something I’ve really enjoyed, is putting something back into nature. As an example, there were 8 goldfinch fledglings at my hide last year and they have turned into prime examples and I like to think I’ve played a part in that. They know me now and will allow me to enter and leave the hide without flying away. It’s the same with siskins and redpolls.

Q: Dale, over the years we have been impressed by your landscape photography as well as your bird images. Do you see yourself as a generalist or is bird photography a bit of a specialist subject for you?

A: I also love landscape photography, but like wildlife photography, it can involve many hours and lots of travelling. I don’t mind that but fitting it all into a busy family life isn’t easy. How do I classify myself, then? Bird photography is probably my main interest at the moment, with a large part of that being because it fits far more easily into my family and working life. I think I’d consider myself a Nature photographer rather than a generalist, as landscapes are “nature” too.

Q: And finally, what would your three top tips be for Bird Photography?

A:  My top three tips are:

  1. Stay hidden as best you can. A hide certainly helps, but if you don’t have one then you need some kind of cover at the very least, even if it’s just merging with your surroundings as best you can out in the field. Good camo gear helps. Just as importantly though, you need to get to know the bird’s habits, they are creatures of habit for sure. I often sit in my hide or out in the field and just watch for hours. I’ve been working on the river nearby for over a year now, just watching kingfishers flying by. Only now am I getting close to the shot as I learn where they perch to fish. I still may not get the shot but it’s been a privilege trying.
  2. Get to know your camera, stick with it until it dies, it should be an extension of your arm (and mind) and knowing its quirks and limits will serve you well. For most of the time you have a split second to see and capture the image, so you don’t want to be wasting that fumbling with controls.

I own both Canon and Fuji and whilst I still have my Fuji, I am now concentrating almost entirely on one system (Canon). The menus now are second nature and I can make adjustments whilst looking through the viewfinder.

  1. Have patience, then some more, then even more. You’ll need it. Don’t give up – you’ll sometimes more often go without a shot than get one, but when you do nail it, you’ll know exactly why you do it.

And to finish, may I just quote you my mantra: the wellbeing of the wildlife comes first. Always put it before a photograph.