WILDLIFE photography is most often associated with the African Savannah or Amazon Rainforest, but a Whitby photographer has put the region on the naturalist map by winning an international photographic competition.
In what is the most prestigious competition of its kind in the world, Steve Mills has been named Veolia Environnement International Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the ‘Bird Behaviour’ category.
His shot, entitled “The Assassin” shows a merlin dramatically caught in the act of killing a snipe.
Not only does Steve live in Whitby but the winning photo was taken just yards from his house near Saltwick Bay.
The photo was taken last winter, just after there had been a heavy snowfall, and Steve explained how the story came about: “I live near the coast and birds had moved towards the sea in the hope of finding less ice and snow.
“The area was dripping with birds trying to find food so I set out in the car, found a little patch of unfrozen ground and waited.”
After about half an hour the victim, a species of wading bird known as a snipe, arrived.
Steve added: “It’s a secretive bird but here it was, out in the open, needing to feed where it could.
“Normally it would have been much more alert but it was so desperate that it didn’t see the falcon coming in low and fast.
“The merlin hit the snipe in a flurry of snow, grabbed it around the neck, stared briefly at me and then killed its prey with a series of rapid blows to the head.
“The attack was so unexpected, so dramatic and so close, that I was overjoyed to find I had captured the moment, but I also felt great sympathy for the loser.”
The photographer, who previously produced the “Birds in Focus” feature for the Gazette, knew immediately that he had captured something special.
In total, there were 41,000 entries from 95 countries for the prestigious photography competition, and Steve was the only British category winner.
Wildlife ranger Chris Hansell, who works for the Hawk and Owl Trust on Fylingdales Moor, agreed that the picture captures a special moment.
He said: “Congratulations to Steve on winning the award with such a stunning photo of the iconic raptor on the North York Moors.
“Merlin populations are relatively stable throughout Britain with local declines, particularly in the north of England, and part of my job is to protect merlins and their habitat, along with that of their prey species and all the other fauna present.
“While merlins are a bird of the high moor during the spring and summer, in autumn they follow their prey species, usually skylark and meadow pipit, down to coastal regions and it was this movement which enabled Steve to get his photo.”
Steve received his award at a gala dinner held in London’s Natural History Museum, where the competition judges wrote: “Predator and prey perfectly balanced.
“An exceptional moment and unusual species - the perfect combination.”
The image will now be displayed at the Natural History Museum, along with the other winners, before going on a world tour.
To see the other winning pictures see www.nhm.ac.uk and for more of Steve Mill’s photos visit www.stevemills-birdphotography.com