Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Searching For Signs Of Spring

Spring this year has been rather unusual. Initially it appeared it was going to be very late, as winter dragged its heels and the cold weather persisted well into April, finally giving way to some welcome sunshine and warmth during my trip to Norfolk, though even then, some of the more traditional sights and sounds of the season failed to materialise.

Having dipped on even hearing a cuckoo in Norfolk, I chose to head down to RSPB Otmoor in Oxfordshire, to rectify the situation. Several had been reported on the blogs that are so helpful for occasional visitors such as myself, and as I opened the car door in the parking area, I heard a distant cuckoo calling. Excellent, one target ticked off the Spring List. Another might be lizards and grass snakes, though neither showed for me, despite an expansive search. Nevermind, the numerous hobbies hawking overhead were a welcome distraction...

With my 1DX at Fixation being repaired and serviced, I was relying on my 7D mk2 for once, and I realised pretty quickly that I was out of practice with it, in terms of knowing where to point it with the 700mm reach. That extra 1.6 crop means the target area is significantly tighter, and with fast moving targets like hobbies, I kept missing them initially. It didn't help either that I was trying to use a monopod. I ditched that, opting to hand-hold the lens, and soon got back into the swing of things.

And they were such good fun, I visited again a few days later, to find that the 8 hobbies had become over 15. At one point, as I stared skywards, all I could see were birds of prey. Red kites, buzzards and loads of hobbies. Fantastic.

Otmoor really is a fabulous reserve in the spring and I sincerely hope plans for an express-way road (Save Otmoor) don't get the green light, and potentially ruin all the hard work the RSPB have done there over the years. It is also one of only a handful of sites in the UK that attracts turtle doves, and hearing their purring call is simply a delight on a warm day.

After spotting one in an oak tree, but somewhat backlit, it was a treat to see it flutter down to the seed sprinkled out by volunteers, and give great views as it fed from the track.

Another species I try to locate in spring is the adder. I have to admit to being very frustrated and angry when I discovered my normal site for these elusive creatures had been cordoned off by Natural England, to prevent disturbance during the breeding season. Frustrated that I couldn't enjoy the sight of them basking in the sunshine, and angry at the morons who have forced NE to take such action. I heard via several sources that some photographers last year, were seen kicking over piles of logs in search of these snakes.

The mind boggles. These creatures are shy, alert and incredibly sensitive to movement and vibrations. Even standing motionless near one, if the wind takes your scent to them, they often slither away, so such a stupid, thoughtless and potentially damaging approach beggars belief.

And there are so few of them left in Worcestershire and surrounding counties, that the utmost care should be taken when attempting to photograph any.

Of course there are other sites around the area, so I tried them, and had varying success. Watching through my close-focusing Kite binoculars, I was able to see one adder keeping an eye on me from a moss-covered hole beneath some bracken, and also a pair copulating, which is something I hadn't seen before. They were locked together and when she decided to move further into the undergrowth, he had no choice but to be dragged along by her. Was quite comical actually.

Social media is a handy way to keep up to date on sightings at some of the local sites, and reports of pied flycatchers and common redstarts from the Wyre Forest caught my eye. Annoyingly, as I arrived at Dry Mill Lane I discovered the car park was closed off, and all the lane-side parking had been taken. No choice but to use the Visitor Centre instead, which was miles away from where I wanted to walk, and also not free of charge.

Maybe I missed the signs, but those that I did see, beside the parking meter were so vague in detail for the mapping of the area. I wanted to head towards Dowles Brook, but the signs just showed the different coloured tracks available for walking, riding or mountain biking. I ended up using Google Maps on my phone to work out the direction to go, but a distinctive and familiar bird song stopped me way before I reached the brook.

A wood warbler, several in fact, and calling not far from the wide, dusty track I had been trudging along. As the woods are so hilly, despite this warbler's tendancy to sing from high up in trees, I found I could stand on a slope and be almost eye-level at times. It was just a case of watching and hoping to get a shot before it flew to the next perch.

Initially I used my 7D Mk2 and 100-400mm lens, but the camera struggled to get a focus lock in time, especially with the contrasting backdrop behind the small bird.

So I swapped to the freshly returned 1DX and 500mm lens for a while, and that fared better.

Wandering down towards the brook, I stumbled upon some bluebell woods, and as they bled into areas of bracken, some vibrant orange-coloured butterflies caught my eye. Pearl-bordered fritillaries, and they were busy fluttering around amongst the vegetation. While the males never seemed to keep still, the females were landing frequently, to deposit eggs under leaves and flattened stems. That gave me the chance to use the 100-400mm as a macro lens, with its incredible ability to focus close up.

Down at the brook, I watched a family of grey wagtails, and glimpsed both common redstarts and blackcaps, as they picked off insects near the water. And as I began the arduous a dipper shot past, skimming above the stream.

After taking in reed-beds, heathland and woods, it was time to visit some lakes. And with a couple of hours free before hooking up with Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and fellow judge Jason Curtis, to review this year's entries for the calendar competition, I took a stroll around a local reserve.

What was noticeable in their absence, was a lack of swallows, martins and swifts. Normally by now, the abundance of insects over these lakes attracts these agile birds by the dozen, but I think in the three hours I was there, I saw just one swallow, and one house martin.

Strange calls from the reeds eventually led me to spotting what I assume is some sort of toad. They were very green, and generally hiding amongst the spawn and algae around the edge of the water. With the herons and egrets around, it wasn't a huge surprise to see them diving for cover when I tried to approach them, though I did spot one lurking between reeds, and grabbed a shot before it too, swam away.

A pair of great-crested grebes drifting serenely across one of the smaller pools provided some photo opportunities, especially when the male caught and offered a small fish to the chicks riding around on their mother's back. Made for a wonderful scene, but with only my 100-400mm lens, and being dressed in "civies" I was limited to what images I could obtain.

Back again the following day, dressed more appropriately this time, and I was soon lying on some polythene sheeting beside the main lake, 1DX and 500mm lens on the tripod, which was flat on the ground, with one tripod leg under water to get as low as possible. It wasn't comfortable, and it got worse when I realised the prickling pain I could feel on my hands, side and rear wasn't from the small thistles under me, but from angry red ants, and they were biting me. Very different to mozzie or midge bites, as they hurt immediately, like being stabbed with a red-hot needle.

But the grebes were still fishing, and the lower angle meant I could get the sort of image I had wanted before.

The adults were catching tiny fish, presenting them to the humbug chicks, but teasing them, to encourage them off of their mother's back, and on to the water to accept the meal.

Was an enchanting scene to see such a tiny stripy chick being delicately fed an equally tiny fish.

And amusing to watch the chicks then pursue, catch, and clamber back on to the back of the parent bird again. More amusing still, when she decided to stretch her wings before preening, and in doing so, forced both chicks down into the water, as she rose up!

But with the grebes being on the larger lake, they had more water to explore and fish from, and as the sun started to sink behind me, they headed further away. With clouds of midges now surrounding me, and finding parts of skin not doused in Smidge, I chose to make my escape, back home again.

Spring has most definitely arrived, but maybe some of the usual stars are waiting for summer, to make their appearance? One can only hope.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

North Norfolk

Visiting North Norfolk has become an annual tradition, one that allows my father and me the chance to get some much needed fresh air (for him mainly as I'm out all year round) and to celebrate our birthdays in an area we have both grown to love. This year, as with previous ones, had been a late decision, as last summer he'd suffered a heart attack, and after such a hard, cold and miserable winter, he hadn't been entirely confident in his fitness to be able to enjoy such a trip.

Thankfully he agreed in time for me to book somewhere suitable to stay, and we were blessed with a week of weather more akin to mid-summer, than early spring. By the end of it, temperatures had reached 26C and being able to sit outside a pub in hot sunshine, was just the tonic.

For me, I usually have three targets for wildlife from this area: barn owls, brown hares and marsh harriers. The locations for each seem to change with each visit, so early starts and late finishes, coupled with lots of touring round the area simply searching, usually yields some sort of success.

The hares were pretty easy to find, though there were fewer than on previous visits, something confirmed by a local birder I spoke with, who had been witness to one of the many organised shoots of these mammals, something he said was a harrowing sight. I'm glad I didn't see it. But the shooting estates in the area manage almost all the wildlife that lives on their land, and hares breed rapidly without foxes to naturally control their numbers, so the gamekeepers see fit to cull them too.

One of the positives, if such a comment can be made from this management, is that without ground predators, and the abundance of game-birds that shall we say, aren't the best at crossing roads safely, these estates and surrounding farms are now excellent areas for ground-nesting birds to thrive, and also for birds of prey to find food.

The number of red kites, a bird known for its ability to clean our lanes of roadkill, has grown enormously, and whereas before when a large raptor was spotted from afar, it'd almost certainly be either a buzzard or marsh harrier, now a third option is on the cards. And to help prevent these raptors from becoming statistics for road casualties themselves, the land managers and locals often move the roadkill away from danger and into the adjacent fields.

One does wonder though, when the number of these raptors reaches a point where the land managers / gamekeepers will need to control their numbers too, via a hushed licence from Natural England or by other means...

But in the meantime, I was just enjoying the sight of so many birds of prey quartering over the fields each day.

Often, if I spotted a pair of marsh harriers swooping down into a crop field, and rape seed seemed a popular choice for nest sites, then I would also see perhaps a second or even third pair using the same field.

And it was interesting to see that marsh harriers, like red kites and buzzards, are quite content to walk about the fields in search of food if necessary. Too far for images, I watched all three species pottering around one field, like a meeting of raptors to discuss the fine weather, perhaps.

Closer to me, and well within range of my camera were the hares. Early on in the week, when the vegetation was damp from overnight showers or a heavy dew, the hares would look bedragged. But the males at least, had no time for personal grooming - they were on a mission to chase down females, and if not in direct pursuit, they could be seen following scent-trails around the meadows, sometimes comically going round in circles before picking up where the trail led.

I even managed to get some X-rated views of a pair that mated several times, before she kicked him into the air and bolted off at pace!

While I had some close encounters from my car with the hares, the closest was on one morning, when I was watching a barn owl. More on that shortly, but unbeknown to me, where I had chosen to stand was right beside a route used by the hares for crossing fields, and squeezing under a fence. Dressed in some camo, and remaining dead still, I had not been spotted by the owl, nor it would appear, the local hares, and a rustling sound from by my feet made me glance down at the ground.

Sniffing my ankles, was a brown hare. I didn't move a muscle, though stifling the grin from forming on my face was tricky. The hare tilted its head to one side, to look up at the rest of me, then ambled very slowly out of the hedge. It paused again, to have another look at this unusual sight, before climbing under the wire fence, and off into the field. It was only then that I allowed the huge smile to form on my face!

And the same thing happened several times that morning, as more hares crept through the hedge beside me. Alas I was only armed with my 500mm lens, and didn't want to move too much in case I spooked the barn owl hunting nearby.

As is so often the case, finding barn owls involves chance encounters. Sure, I know of territories of these ghostly hunters around the area, but some are more fruitful than others each time I visit. One morning, as I navigated the twisty main road from the village where we were staying, I clocked a barn owl perched on a post beside the road. Great you might think. Unfortunately it was between two blind bends, on a short stretch of the road, in a 60mph limit. And there was nowhere safe to park.

I drove past, turned round, returned and parked up past it, at the entrance to a field. Switching off the engine I listened. Silence in terms of traffic, so I chanced it. Typically, the owl refused to look in my direction and no sooner had I parked, it flew away. I didn't wait for it to return!

And on another morning, I spotted one hunting beside some woods, and there was somewhere safe to park up. I grabbed my gear and waited, but it had vanished. I scanned the fields, the woods, and even the roadside with my bins, but no sign of it. Bizarre, so I packed up my camera, turned round and sighed as the barn owl flew right past me, and off into the woods.

But my luck would change for the better, and late afternoon, I saw a familar white bird flying along another road, allowing me to follow, at a safe distance to watch where it went. Turned out that there was a pair using some rough meadows for hunting grounds, and there was sufficient cover for me to use to watch them without disturbance.

My fortune seemed to waiver over the initial encounters. I had some good luck when one of the pair started to use a line of fence posts to perch up on, and it landed pretty close to me. But there were small stalks of dead wildflowers between us, so the closest images weren't ideal. Still, it looked gorgeous on the posts further away.

Another occasion, the owl spent over an hour at the far end of the meadow hunting, and didn't seem like it would ever come closer. So I chose to move, and hadn't gone more than 20 metres when the owl suddenly appeared at speed, and flew right past me, to perch up on a post right beside where I'd just left!

But persistence often yields results, and where I had been watching the hares chase, I would have a close encounter of the barn owl kind. Using another line of fence posts, the owl was perching up and watching for movement. Then it flew closer to me, and I chose not to take an image of the owl in flight, hoping it might land closer if I didn't give my location away. It did.

The light was golden, with barely a breath of wind. The owl looked stunning, and was looking right down my lens. I cautiously took a shot. The owl continued to study me, but didn't seem bothered. It looked away, and back to the ground around the post it was perched upon. I took some more images. Then it took flight, and landed even closer!

Now, I have been photographing wildlife for way over a decade, and while I wouldn't say that I'm numb to such encounters, I would like to think that I can keep a lid on my buzz of excitement having been there, done that, got the printed t-shirt. But this experience reignited the flame again, and I had to adjust my stance to stop me from shaking. The owl still didn't seem to notice me, and continued to scan the area for movement or sounds.

Finally it took flight, and moved further down the fence. Awesome. I had frame-filling images of a barn owl, in perfect light. I couldn't ask for more. But more came, and the barn owl again flew towards me, and perched up on a post to the side of me, so close I could only fit half of it in the frame.

Because I had had to move the camera round a bit to point it at the owl, and because it was so very close, it wasn't a huge surprise that after just three images, the owl decided it wasn't sure the shape infront of it was something it wanted to be close to, and flew a bit further off.

Amazing encounter, and one that will live with me forever.

Aside from the main targets, I had hoped to see some cuckoos, but the weather patterns of late had prevented them from reaching the UK in time for my trip. Wheatears had started to arrive though, and Thornham harbour proved to be a good spot for seeing one. After watching where it was favouring to hunt for insects, I moved in, spooking it initially, but after half an hour of sitting still, the wheatear returned, and I was able to get some great shots as it perched on some old weathered wood, to watch for grubs.

Shooting such images against the clear blue sky should have been a cause for celebration, but I noticed an overexposed line across the top of some of the shots. It wasn't always there, and varied in thickness. An internet search confirmed my fears... the shutter was on the way out. Another expense to add to the recent woes with the car (Xenon headlight, thermostat and then turbo failure). But the old workhorse, like the car, continued to work long enough to serve its purpose, and thankfully the images of the hares, harriers and owls weren't affected.

When we left Norfolk, the temperature had just started to fall from the heady heights, and while we were sad to leave (we always are), we had enjoyed a fantastic week of weather and wildlife, bagged many images, enjoyed quite a few pints of ale in and outside some fabulous pubs, met up with old friends and made new ones, and Dad had gone from barely able to walk a few metres, to being almost back to normal walking speed again. And was noticeably happy with life, which is more than I could have hoped for from the trip.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Winter Workshops In The Scottish Highlands

Since turning pro, each winter now means a trip north of the border to Scotland, to take paying clients out to see some of the wonderful array of wildlife to be seen there. And each year, I seem to be spending longer up there, which is great as it means I meet new clients, and also any excuse to spend more time in Scotland, especially the Highlands isn't a bad thing.

In 2019, I am planning to spend the entire month of February in the Scottish Highlands, but this year, I set off on the 9th of the month, with some trepidation, as my normally reliable car was struggling with an engine fault, something it had developed just a few days before the trip, leaving me no time to address it. Thankfully, it was an issue I could largely ignore, and had a means to correct it, should it manifest itself, which it did on several inclines during the journey north. But I got there, and didn't need to rent out any vehicles during the stay either, thank goodness.

Unlike the previous winter, there was a lot of snow around this time. Too much in some cases, and meant I had to abandon plans to take clients to see the ptarmigan. On the days when the road to the area was open, the snow was simply too deep to walk through, and often the wind at the summit was too dangerous to risk the client's safety. And from experience, I also know that the ptarmigan are very flighty in windy weather, so aren't approachable anyway. Hence my guiding this winter was with the mountain hares, red squirrels, crested tits and red grouse.

Of course, all the snow meant most of my clients enjoyed seeing the "classic" and "most wanted" white hares in snow when they came out with me, though it did involve a slippery ascent to the top of the hills, where most of the hares were being seen, and the majority of the snow remained. I think perhaps the cold conditions did limit the hares' behaviour, as it was simply too cold for them to be considering chasing any females around.

I saw some boxing action during the days spent on the hills, but mostly at a distance, and the only spat seen close by, happened behind a large boulder! Typical...

As with last winter, there were quite a few photographers wandering around, clearly having no idea of how to approach the hares, and displaced them constantly. This can actually work in your favour as some of the hares will scamper past where you're lying or sitting, providing images of moving hares.

But it can also be annoying, especially when photographers ignore the unwritten rules of not approaching hares with photographers already "on them", and end up spooking the hare away. Immensely frustrating if you have spent maybe an hour crawling closer to a hare, only to have some muppet scare it away in seconds.

After a few days of not seeing any, I was overjoyed to spot both golden and a white-tailed eagle soaring over the hills. These were about the only time I regretted not taking my 500mm lens up to the top, but this year, after suffering with back pains from the previous trips, I chose to just take my new 100-400mm lens up the hills, and hence not need a tripod either. It is such a good lens, focusing as quickly and accurately as my prime, and giving stunning images too. And it allowed me to compose different images of the hares without having to move myself around.

Perhaps the most remarkable and memorable moment with a hare came before any of the guided days had started. I was out with Andy Howard, just for an afternoon, to wander up the hills and learn from him about which of the current crop of hares were the best to approach, when we happened upon one in the car park. When it ambled across to some heather nearby, Andy and I followed, and it quickly became clear that the hare, busy feeding, wasn't concerned with us being close at all. So much so, we chose to abandon the usual telephoto lenses in favour of a wider view.

To be lying with a wild mountain hare, merely 50cm in front of me, was incredible. We assumed it wasn't well maybe, or exhausted from the cold, but it was feeding constantly, and there were no apparent injuries. When it finally scampered away from us, we left it alone, and it was still munching away when we drove off.

In addition to the guided workshops, I dragged myself up the hills to photograph the hares by myself, and on one day it was probably a bad idea. With howling winds, snow blowing around and a temperature of minus 17C, it was difficult to stand up on the exposed summit, and the cold made my face and hands go numb in seconds. Finding white hares against the snow is hard enough in good conditions, but these were diabolical. I eventually settled on the side of a hill that offered some shelter from the gales, and where most of the hares had relocated to. But even when I was relatively close to a hare, it was obvious to me that I wasn't going to get anything new from the experience, apart from frostbite. It's days like these that make you respect how hardy these creatures are. It was absolutely perishing up there.

As well as hares, I take clients to see both red squirrels and crested tits, making use of sites that Andy has created over time. The red squirrel site was worked on again back in December, when I helped install a 15 foot long reflection pool, so I was keen to make use of this myself on this visit. Of course the problem with a pool during the winter is the cold, and I had to time my personal visits to days when the temperature was above zero, and hope the breeze wouldn't be an issue.

Thankfully, one afternoon, the breeze dropped and the sun lit up the area at the back of the reflection pool beautifully, and my luck was in when one of the squirrels paid a visit.

My fortune continued on another visit when I had rigged up my camera on the tripod outside of the hide, to get the best line down the jumping area as was possible, taking images using a wireless trigger. This is very much down to luck and timing, and a group of squirrels that are happy to leap over for a hazelnut treat. The problem with this sort of remote set up is that you're never sure if you are getting a focused image. So I was overjoyed when reviewing images later that evening, when I spotted one where the focus was bang on, and the squirrel (Tippy) had performed a nearly perfectly symmetrical jump. Bless her.

A benefit of the cold weather is that insects are harder to find, so the crested tits rely more on food put out, and visit the peanut feeders more frequently. Most of the time when I am guiding clients on such days, I don't get out my camera, but when large flakes of snow started falling from the skies, I dug out my gear, and grabbed a few shots of the "cresties" as they perched up in the blizzard.

This also helped me to suggest angles for the client to try, showing them how my shot had turned out, to tempt them to go for a similar result.

When I first visited the Highlands several years ago, one of the sites I would always visit was Burghead harbour, as it was a fabulous place to see winter wildfowl. Eiders and long-tailed ducks, plus scoters occasionally. Sadly I fear the harbours all along that coast have been dredged, as these wonderful ducks no longer seem to be fishing in the harbours, and only catch food out on the open water.

With each visit, I constantly say that I must take advantage of the birds that visit the garden where I stay (Andy and Lyndsey Howard's house), so this time I did just that. Parking the car just outside their gates, I moved some of the feeders around and captured images of the less common birds visiting. I was particularly happy to see tree sparrows, which are a bird I never see at home in my garden.

A bird that I didn't expect to see one day though, was at a grouse moor where I rarely see any birds of prey other than buzzards and occasionally a merlin or kestrel around. It appeared from a wooded area, and flew towards me, annoyingly against the sun. So as it flew over the car, I blasted some shots off and in doing so recognised the flight of a goshawk! A juvenile, first winter bird, which quickly crossed the moors, and then circled over some trees on the horizon for a few moments. Hopefully it will move away from the area, as grouse moors are notorious for making such raptors disappear.

But the grouse are of course welcome, and they were starting to show signs of battling for the females. I found a spot where a male was defending his territory, and waited. Cue lots of strutting, posturing, a brief fight and a bit of flying. All of which made for an interesting couple of hours.

As well as the guiding, I managed to spend some time out and about with friends. On one day, Lyndsey Howard joined me for a walk around Farr where we were treated to some brief views of dippers on the stream that runs through the centre, and then even better views of a female goosander.

Laggan was the destination on another day, when Andy and I were joined by Derek, a retired headmaster who I have met before up there, and we all enjoyed several hours photographing red deer on the snow-covered slopes of the hills around there. After a pitstop for cake and coffee, we spent the last hour or so at the RSPB Insh Marshes reserve, and were treated to a distant view of a female hen harrier quartering the meadows.

Perhaps the best session with friends came at the end of the trip. With snow forecast, we joined up with a client who had been stranded by the bad weather and lack of trains, and visited the Alvie Estate deer feeding station. This is something I have wanted to do for some time, but never really had the chance to do so. So I was understandably overjoyed to be standing on a snow-covered track in a woodland, photographing majestic red deer stags as they approached through the trees, with snow falling all around. Magical.

And to share the session with Andy, Lyndsey and Sarah made it even better. Absolutely fantastic.

Alas it was time to leave, and with the railway network still crippled by the bad weather, I offered Sarah a lift back down south (which she eventually accepted) to Preston, where she could catch a train home from. Worked out well, as she was home and drinking some Yorkshire tea well before I got back to the Midlands. Despite a few more scares with the car, it made it back, and I'm now awaiting some horrendous bill to fix it.

As mentioned at the start, I will be running more winter wildlife workshops in the Scottish Highlands throughout next February if anyone would like to come along. Prices and details are listed on my website as usual.

Roll on spring now, and a bit of warmth...