A Wren’s Breath
08 / 04 / 21
NOTE I've updated the blog after managing to capture the Wren's breath a 2nd time (the updated section is after the first mini gallery)
March, like for many people, was a tough month for me. I was at the end of an 8 month contract from a corporate world I had left 7 years ago and finding working from home challenging. At the same time I was doing some really high profile talks for Canon. The most difficult part was Eersel, my dog and best friend for the last 13 years, was dying. It was my birthday on the 6th of March in the middle of doing the Talks for the Spring Shoots Event. I was home alone with my dying dog during lockdown. Two days later she passed and I was heartbroken.
I know I was very fortunate to have work during that period but that didn’t alleviate how difficult I found that time.
Anybody who follows my photography knows I'm a huge fan of early mornings. That just seems to be when the magic happens for me. This year with the Big E (Eersel) no longer wanting to go on long walks I didn't want to leave her after her short walk so I just didn't do much early morning photography at all. After she passed I really felt she would have wanted me to get back to it so I went back into early mode to keep myself busy.
I had seen numerous images of the Slavonian Grebe (above), a rare bird for Yorkshire, at a local RSPB site St Aidan's and decided this was going to be my first early morning project. It's a 5 minute drive and a 30 minute walk to get to the area it had been sighted in. It was actually a very easy bird to photograph as the bird was super obliging!
When I started walking back from the site there's a long track you follow with gorse bushes on either side and I could hear the loud voice of the tiny wren. I've alway loved wrens, such a beautiful bird, full of character and their song is so loud I can never work out how it comes out of a body which only weighs 7-12 grams! The bird was showing really well and I had to photograph it. I've been using the Canon R5 camera for some time now and I had my Canon EF 800mm L lens with me. This meant I could keep some distance from the bird and it was not spooked by me at all. The eye focussing on the R5 even works on a 9 cm bird! So for a bird I'd struggled with in the past it got me thinking...
I had seen pictures of bird's breath in the past and thought they looked amazing but hadn't really thought about how they were done. But after seeing this wren singing its heart out for a few days I thought that bird must be pushing some air out. I mentioned before the gorse bushes are on either side of the track; one way is to the west and the other to the east. I then thought about what conditions would I need? So thinking I'd need the temperature to be low so the breath would condense (we sometimes still get these temperatures in March/April in the UK), I'd need the sun to just cross the horizon to backlight the bird (well as long as the bird is on the right side of the track), I'd need to make sure the background is dark for the breath to show up (easy just have the tripod high) and little to no wind.
So just a case of waiting for the right forecast, right?
Of course not! It's wildlife photography! The first morning that the weather forecast looked like all those elements would come together I headed to wren alley and not a wren to be seen! The sun came up, the light was perfect, there was mist so the breath would certainly have condensed, but no wrens.
So I headed down the track and spent some time photographing the Slavonian grebe. I wanted to do something a little bit different and with the strong backlighting I captured this image at 1/6400 of a second shutter speed which allowed me to freeze the water splash.
The same morning I got to see great crested grebes doing their courtship display for the first time (I'm normally in Northern Sweden at this time of year). Absolutely stunning to see. The birds were very far away but the cropping potential from the R5 files meant I could still get a usable image.
So the 2nd time the weather conditions looked like they might work I set the alarm clock for 5:30am and I headed out. This time a wren did show but was at the wrong side of the path for the bird breath to be visible.
So now we are 3 weeks into this project and I'm getting a little twitchy as I'd told loads of people my idea. I don't know why I do that as all it does is add pressure as then you feel you have to deliver. Yesterday, and we have hit a cold snap in the UK so the temperature looked like -1C, perfect, but the wind forecast was not good, showing at 7mph. You still have to try though you never know it may be wrong. I'd arranged to meet a friend of mine there too at 6am so the alarm was set for 5:15am as it's getting lighter on a morning now. Got to the site and met Neil. As we walked down to wren alley there was a barn owl quartering on the hillside but for the 1st time in my life I had to ignore the barn owl and head to wren alley!
So I get to wren alley before the sun hit the horizon, there was a little bit of cloud but I thought the sun would break through it. There was also some wind but not too much and less than forecast.
Most importantly there was a wren but on the wrong side of the path. My friend carried on down the track whilst I set up and waited. The sun just started breaking through and the light went golden but the wren was still on the wrong side of the track. It sung its heart out whilst I felt as nervous as someone on their first date.
I knew I only had a couple of minutes of this perfect light and the wren flew north about 50 metres and went onto the gorse on the right side of the track.
I had to run fast to make the distance, not so easy with an 800mm lens and then slow right down, not spook the bird and voila...
Watching the breath come out of the bird and hearing that song was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life!
I've learnt a few things from this time; March was a tough month but April has been much better, a dog really is a person's best friend, it really is possible to see a wren's breath and there is so much satisfaction in being able to visualise a photograph, put the effort in and realise it. And lastly early mornings really are a special time of the day!
Any questions please feel free to ask in the comments box below.
I'll pop a mini gallery in the end with some more wren breath images in it.
Thanks for reading and good luck with life.
All the best,
Me being me, although, I'd been delighted to capture the wren's breath I thought that I could do better. The wren wasn't quite square on when the breath was looking it's best so I wanted to try and capture it again. Luckily the weather forecast was looking really favourable to do this as there was consistent high pressure meaning cold mornings (to condense the breath), clear skies (to provide views of the sun at sunrise, needed to backlight the breath) and little wind (so the breath doesn't just disappear).
So for ten mornings I headed over to St Aidan's walked approximately 6 miles and tried. I did the maths on this and it clocks in at around 30 hours and 60 miles of effort carrying my Canon R5, Canon 800mm f/5.6 L, Benro Mach 3 tripod and Benro gimbal tripod head. So a reasonable amount of effort.
For the 1st nine mornings good conditions but the wren, although there every morning, stayed on the side of the path which meant it was not backlite by the sun and therefore the breath was not visible. On the 10th morning I was starting to think the 1st set of 'The Wren's Breath' images was a one off, and this was potentially my last chance, as I was heading to Northumberland later that day.
I did the walk having to ignore the barn owl again. Saw the wren, saw the sunrise and again the wren was on the wrong side of the path. It was literally like a re run of the 1st time as it did exactly the same thing. It flew way up the path then flew to the other sidesie of the path. So I had to move fast then carefully and I got another 30 seconds worth of witnessing 'The Wren's Breath'!
This time although the wren only gave me 30 seconds, or, so where I could get the angle right. This time the bird positioned it's self so I could get a perfect side profile of the bird and therefore I could see the breath much more distinctly.
I hope you like the additional images and I'll pop the other best images from the session in a mini gallery below.
All the best,
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Beautiful blog, beautiful story, and beautiful imagery! Well done Oliver.
Chad Blakley - 8th April, 2021
What a beautiful evocative image and a beautiful story, your last paragraph made me cry. Thank you for taking the time and effort to bring such a lovely thing to life.
Catherine - 8th April, 2021
Amazing photo & story. Thank you.
David - 8th April, 2021
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story.Also love early mornings..special time.
Marchelle - 8th April, 2021
So sorry about your loss. Superb images, well done for putting in the effort. And, a well written and heart felt blog.
geraint - 8th April, 2021
Bloody awesome pal, hard work always pays off. A very well deserved image Oliver.
Lee Metcalfe - 8th April, 2021
Loves all your posts, thank you again for wonderful birds .💐
supatra minsch - 8th April, 2021
So sorry that Eersel has crossed over the bridge…
What a majestic photo. I can see the song in the breath!
Absolutely stunning. Congratulations on such a fab shot.
Sam - 8th April, 2021
Sorry about your best friend. :-( Great story and great photo! The spiderweb is a nice bonus.
DavidS - 8th April, 2021
I’m sorry about your dog. I’m so glad you decided to go for the wren because it truly is breathtaking! In awe if your talent. Your dog would be chuffed for you. Well Done!
Jacinta - 8th April, 2021
So sorry about your dog. We lost our 12 yo in August and we miss him everyday. I love the one with the breath in waves.
Heather Seymour - 8th April, 2021
Thank you for the bittersweet snapshot of your life. It brings such joy to know you accomplished a pre-visualized photo and found all the ingredients in a single morning. When I see the multiple images, I see the various trills and calls visualized in birdy breaths. Amazing!
Vicki - 9th April, 2021
Thank you for this blog and amazing photos. I also have an ancient old dog who is about to turn 14. Their twilight time is very hard. Trying not to let your own sadness cloud the time they have left but it gets me each time. I’m thankful that the lockdown has meant more time with him at home than i would have had otherwise..a silver lining during a challenging period. So sorry for your loss. Keep getting up early your photos are beautiful.
Tamsin Austin - 9th April, 2021
Wow Oliver you caught one of the wonders of the world there. Thank you for persevering. It’s magical.
Caroline - 9th April, 2021
A poem for you, in gratitude for your gift to the world.
the wren breathes a blessing
of wreathed mist
his warmth is a ghost that glides
from the host
to catch the sun’s rays and welcome
that lengthening bring
a reason to
Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud - 10th April, 2021
Struggling for words. Absolutely amazing pictures and such effortless story telling. An absolute joy!
Lynne Tyson - 10th April, 2021
Great blog Oliver, love the Wren shots as they are favourite of mine too and to get the breath shot is outstanding.
Steve Proctor - 11th April, 2021
Hi Oliver, always been a great fan of yours and you probably can’t remember but I met you in person a few years ago at Hatfield moor. Anyway what a brilliant set of the Wren’s breath. Out of this world mate. So sorry for the loss of your dog. Look forward to seeing more great images from you.
Roger - 11th April, 2021
Fab as ever Ollie and well done, you persistence paid off
Peter Anderson - 12th April, 2021
What a wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpse into your process, Oliver! Very sorry for your loss, yet happy for you and the world that all the variables finally aligned for you to get these stunning shots!
Shelley - 13th April, 2021
Your probably going home when I am going out! Terrific shot Oliver I did see your post earlier of the project and thought “there’s a challenge” Glad it all came together, the Big E was watching over you 🐶
Barry Carter - 13th April, 2021
Beautiful Capture and Great Story👍🏼
Reward for All the work, planning, equipment and the power of working through grief.
Condolences on your best friend. We just lost our little cat and our house is so empty.
Your Wren’s Breath reminded me of our miraculous world 🌎
Mary Gerdt - 20th April, 2021
All are beautiful images. My favourite was on the right in the row of 3 just up from the bottom. The breath trail is most distinct and you see a little bit of the tail. And then I re-evaluated, and all three are equally lovely in their own way.
Nicola Billows - 23rd April, 2021
Lin - 7th October, 2021
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Learn More - 23rd May, 2022
Oliver, I am so sorry for the loss of your best friend. Maybe the spirit of Big E resides in this sweet wren! Her lyrical song
is her precious gift to you so you that know she is around. Your stunning images touch my heart—incredible light, wonderful texture, and great composition. You capture and preserve special moments that many people would never see. Thank you!
Wren Lover - 29th July, 2022