Friday, 24 January 2014

Shrike & Smew Help A Slow Start To 2014

After welcoming in the New Year with excessive drinking, followed by a dreadful hangover, I was hoping to get cracking on trips out and about on cold, frosty, sunny days. Hmm. 2014 started as 2013 ended. Wet. In fact, for the first week of the year I failed to go anywhere or take a single photo. All very depressing.

Sure I tried to get out in breaks between the downpours, finding a huge flock of finches on the Lickey Hills, for example. Alas, even though they were all around me, and perched on the roofbars of my car, it was so gloomy I'd have needed a spotlamp attached to my lens to even work out what I was looking at, let alone get a decent shot.

I did try for the little owls one morning, though it was cloudy. Found them both, got some pics of one before it flew off, and almost, despite having a 4x4, got stuck on the verge.

Thankfully after the slow start, I managed to find time to get out when the sun was out, even if it only allowed a break at lunch, to visit the local great grey shrike. This has proved to be a real draw for visitors, and it's rare to drive past the area without seeing at least one person, scanning the fields for the bird.

After starting out at the back of the plantation, the shrike began to favour the area nearer the road, which was not only better for the light for photos, but also meant no need for a very muddy walk along the canal, an even muddier hike around the fields, and of course prevented me from being labelled an egotistical, money-shot-grabbing *insert expletive here of your choice*, as I was so generously called after my first sortie into the public area.

If the shrike wasn't around though, often the buzzards, kestrels or local sprawk would provide some entertainment. The latter usually pursued by crows.

I didn't solely focus on the shrike though - with one sunny day forecast, I decided to head over to Draycote Water, to see if the smew and great northern diver were around. It was relative calm for the area, and whilst walking along the path, I took advantage of some goldeneyes fishing close to the shore, with both male and female present.

The smew was easy to find, as it glows in sunshine.

And was lovely to see with some blue water, unlike the last one I photoed.

Alas the diver remained distant, but I managed to capture some mergansers, both bobbing around, and also taking flight.

Back to the shrike challenge. Getting a shot of it was still a case of being there at the right time, and in the right place. My first decent shots came after deciding to wander up the path, away from everyone else, to see if I could see it from the top of the hill. I could, but it was still distant. Then, as another birder scrambled up the embankment to join me, the shrike chose to fly much closer. I grabbed some shots, and tried (in vain) to wave to everyone down the road, to come closer. God knows what drivers going by thought of someone stood facing a hedge, waving an arm around frantically...

It was still nowhere near as close as the one at Napton, but flew a bit closer still, and I finally bagged some half decent shots. Far better than those from late last year, when the light was at such a nasty angle.

And with a blue sky behind. Arguably rarer than the shrike!

Walking back down to rejoin the others, after the shrike flew off, of course, I felt bad that I hadn't been able to attract their attention - if only I could whistle! I can't. I've tried. I just blow air and look more stupid than usual.

Thankfully the shrike flew closer again, but this time where everyone was waiting, and allowed more shots to be taken, although not quite as close as before.

That changed when it flew into the lower field, and landed right next to the hedge. Agonisingly though, the wrong side of the sun, so it was backlit. With a fair bit of post-processing, I managed the shot below, but not great.

Most subsequent visits were brief, usually helping new visitors to locate the bird if they didn't know where to look. When it was staying distant, I'd just go home. But on the last visit, again the bird was sat at the back, I spotted a group of birders at the wrong layby, so called them up and showed them the shrike. Annoyingly I hadn't got my gear out when the shrike flew at us, and over our heads into the fields behind. I drove round to see if I could locate, failed, and returned to find the birders had left. It was then that I spotted the shrike had returned, and was sat, pretty close to the path! And with the light behind me too.

With the place to myself, and no-one to offend, I took a few shots, walked up the path to get closer, took some more, and so on, until I was as close as I could get, without being in the field. Like the bird has any perception of the hedge as being an acceptable boundary! But, it does provide something of an object to hide behind, perhaps.

From here I could take a few shots, as the shrike maintained balance on the thin perch, moving in the breeze.

I moved around slightly to get a different backdrop to the shots.

I even took some video footage of it, but like a muppet, forgot to tighten my tripod head in place, and halfway through the clip, the breeze blew the lens off target, sending the shrike off the left of the screen. I don't think John Aitchison has anything to worry about just yet!

But at least 2014 was finally up and running.

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