Sunday, 29 March 2020

March Adders And Lockdown

I've said numerous times in the past, that I ignore my garden and what visits it. I am guilty of spending time pretty much anywhere but being at home when looking for wildlife to photograph, but this past week, with the lockdown enforced from the Coronavirus pandemic, I have begun to appreciate the garden once again.

The start of March saw me on Mull running an otter workshop, followed by a fun few days back home in the company of Lyndsey, who was collecting Andy's new car from the dealership where my brother works. After she'd headed back north, with the house being so quiet I was as usual keen to get out, to find wildlife, and top of the list were adders.

There aren't many locations to see these snakes in the Midlands, but I discovered one through research some years ago, and through a lot of walking and looking, worked out where to find them, on the site. With a forecast for sunshine, I drove over, and started to scour the areas I knew for them. The male adders would have emerged from hibernation during February, and by now some of the larger females would also be out.

As with a lot of wildlife spotting, you need to "get your eye in" and then the snakes start standing out from their surroundings.

The day ended with me having seen four individuals, which wasn't a bad tally. I managed some relatively "clean" shots of a couple too, which isn't always possible with where the snakes tend to bask in the sunshine.

Then as I was contemplating a return visit, the lockdown came into force. Stay at home was (and still is) the message, and only go out for essential work or shopping. Well, my work isn't essential on any level, when faced with this virus, and my freezer was pretty well stocked already. Truth be told, I had been monitoring the news globally, and had guessed something like this lockdown might be enforced, so had picked up odds and ends prior to it kicking in.

Confined to the house, I woke on the first morning, and looked out into the garden. It was a mess to be frank, with brambles and ivy encroaching from all sides. Armed with secateurs and gloves, I spent most of the first couple of days of the lockdown, fighting was might be called Battle Of The Brambles. I won, eventually, but my fingers suffered from the thorns and their ability to pierce any gardening glove.

Whilst pruning I did notice the birds that were visiting the feeders, so once I was happy that the garden was in a decent state, I turned my attention to my camera again. Initially, setting up in the conservatory with the 500mm on a tripod, I found that few birds save the plucky blue tits were coming in. It's funny, given how often birds here see people, that they are so wary of them, compared to those I see in the Highlands, when photographing the crested tits, for example. But flighty they were, and I needed to do something.

Part of the problem is having the conservatory door open. Perhaps the birds are used to seeing it closed, and it looks different. Only time will tell if they get used to it. But I employed my bag-hide to help mask the shape of my camera and tripod, and it also helps hide me somewhat.

Next I needed to set up some perches, and a bit more pruning was needed to make some of the backdrops to the shots, cleaner. Then it was (and still is) a case of standing still behind the tripod, and waiting.

By far the most frequent visitor is the humble blue tit. I think there are two pairs coming in. They mostly aim for the suet balls, but are quite happy to pick from the seed mix tray or the sunflower heart feeders.

A bird that always makes my heart sing when I see it, is the long-tailed tit. And I've noticed that a pair seem to be busy in the far corner of the garden, hopefully building a nest. They're collecting spiders' webs from around the shrubs, but every so often coming to the suet ball feeder to keep up their energy levels.

There are three pairs of robins around too, and one pair of coal tits.

In recent years, when I have spent an hour watching the garden's birds, I have noticed a lack of greenfinches. Thankfully that trend has reversed, and there are at least three pairs coming in.

Goldfinches are also around, chattering as they wait for a turn on the feeders. Always a treat to see, and brighten up the dullest of days.

At the beginning of the month there was a male blackcap constantly hogging the feeders, trying to chase off other birds, though strangely the blue tits scared him away! Since I've rigged up the camera, he's gone into hiding. Typical. That said, I did see a female yesterday, and a rival male, so perhaps he's busy with other things now.

A pair of nuthatches are vocal most mornings, so I got up early one day this week to try for some shots. Yes, you guessed it, no sign of them until late afternoon...

As well as a busy wren zipping around the hedge at the back, there is also a pair of goldcrests around, so when I spotted one flitting around the lower branches of the evergreen tree, I was out in a flash, armed with my Canon 7D mk2 and 100-400mm mk2. You need to be quick to capture images of these tiny birds (smallest in the UK) so I ended up with many shots of empty branches, or blurred tails. But thankfully a couple of decent images.

The star of the garden though, has to be the bullfinch, and from what I can tell I have at least three pairs coming in. One I have seen in previous years unfortunately has lesions on one of his legs, so he can't perch up on the feeders. Doesn't seem to be affecting him though, as he hovers to take seeds. And he is absolutely gorgeous in colour.

There's another vibrant male, with no such problems on his legs, and he almost glows, though he needs to remember to clean his beak after nibbling on the freshly growing buds on the trees around the garden.

And finally a young male, with a subtle pinkish colour, but is no less beautiful.

And of course each male has an accompanying female, stunning in their own way.

So after ignoring my garden in recent years, it has now become my saviour, and provides me with something to occupy my mind and point my camera at, during these trying times. Stay tuned for more posts...

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Winter Workshops In The Scottish Highlands And On Mull

The house is silent, I'm alone again, and the wind is battering the rain against my windows once more. Just like it was when I left for the Highlands, almost a month ago. I've barely had time to soak up the events of the last four weeks, but I'm sure it'll start to sink in over time, and while most of it is fresh in my head, I thought I ought to write it down, for this blog.

As usual, early in February I packed my bags and headed north, to the Scottish Highlands. Like last year, the weather that greeted me on arrival was cold, and wintery, but unlike last year, it remained so, and my clients all enjoyed what I would consider to be winter conditions. Last year by the middle of my stay, the temperature was a ridiculous 17 degrees Celcius, and the "most wanted" subject for my workshops, the crested tit, was nowhere to be seen.

Not a problem this year, and they would prove to be perhaps the stars of the show for the winter workshops. Normally I have availability for these workshops right up to the time I leave, but this season, I was fully booked before the beginning of December, which was great for me. The only concern would be the ptarmigan, as the windy conditions always make trips up the mountain pointless - if it's windy, the ptarmigan are impossible to approach, not to mention the difficulty of making the hike up there in the first place.

After arriving and settling in at Andy and Lyndsey's house, I spent a day with Andy initially, at the crested tit site, and then helped him with a project the following day at the squirrels, before accompanying one of his clients to the crested tit site again. And after last year's no-show over there, to see these charismatic birds buzzing around the feeders constantly was the most wonderful of sights.

Made even better by the snow falling all around.

I won't go into all the details of how the workshops panned out, but will simply say that everyone got almost everything they hoped for. As mentioned earlier, the gusty conditions prevented us from finding the ptarmigan until the workshops later in my stay, when the weather finally calmed down, but the red squirrels, red deer, red grouse, crested tits, snow buntings and mountain hares all put in an appearance for my clients.

I've selected a few images from the sessions for the blog...

The trip up for the ptarmigan was so worth waiting for. It was a bit of a hike up, and like last year, was a joint effort with Andy and his client leading the way. When they left us to it, favouring a session back down the mountain with the snow buntings, we reapproached the group of ptarmigan, and got some lovely stuff of them. Any session with these birds is memorable, and I always treasure the time with them.

Readers of this blog will recall previous trips to the Highlands resulting in me seeing some fantastic wildfowl around the harbours. Sadly in recent years, due to essential dredging of these busy fishing areas, the birds haven't been seen, until this winter, when we watched some more long-tailed ducks fishing in the sheltered waters.

An unexpected treat for my clients that day.

While most of my time in the Highlands had been set aside for workshops, I did have a couple of days free, and I was more than happy to spend the time with Lyndsey, who spent one of the days showing me round a glen near where her grandparents live, which is definitely one of the most picturesque areas I've ever been fortunate enough to see.

Snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, lochs and small islands, with red deer around to add to the magic. The weather might have been a little challenging at times, but it made it all the more incredible.

And a place I returned to with my clients the following week, who were also as spellbound by it all as I was.

At the end of the month, I had to leave Andy and Lyndsey, which is always difficult, as I love spending time with them. But rather than be heading home, I was driving south and west, to the Isle Of Mull for a week, most of which would be spent running a bespoke workshop looking for otters.

The start of the visit was pretty grim in terms of the weather. Howling winds and horizontal snow, sleet, hail and rain. But it didn't take me long to locate the subject for the workshop.

And one encounter would prove to be very special indeed. Roll the clocks back to several years ago, when I was on Mull with my Dad, but also spending time with Ian and his family. They'd just arrived for a week, after we'd already been there for one already. We had CB radios, and were constantly chatting to one another when I heard Ian telling me he'd got an otter, with a lobster. I remember the moment clear as day, even now, after all these years. I was watching some goosanders, and I decided not to go round to join him, for fear of spooking the otter, and costing him the shots. I waited, and Ian bagged some incredible shots that day.

This time I was alone, and watching a mother and almost grown-up cub out fishing in the loch. There was some splashing, what appeared to be a brief spat out in the water, and then one otter started to head to the shore, at speed. I wasn't sure of what it had caught, but as the rain had finally stopped, I thought I'd go and get into position to see it. Scrambling down the lochside into a pile of slimey seaweed, I set the camera up and tracked the otter as she broke through the waves.

A lobster.

She actually brought it ashore closer to me than I'd expected, favouring the shingle shore instead of the rocks where I thought she'd come out. I grabbed some shots as she carried the prize up the beach, finally dropping it not far from the road. She briefly sniffed the lobster, before tucking in... facing away from me.

I have to admit, despite nailing the shots of her bringing it ashore, I was gutted not to be seeing the eating. Until a car went by, and she paused, moving away from her meal, before going back, and this time choosing to eat it, facing me.

She spent almost a quarter of an hour dining on the lobster, right in front of me, but never being aware of my presence. Her cub swam past midway through the meal, squeaking away, but she ignored him, focusing on her fine cuisine instead.

After finishing, she then found a grassy spot further down the loch to come out and groom on, and after going back into the water briefly again, she spent more time grooming her fur beside a small estuary. This did lead to one moment of frustration for me, when at the precise moment she climbed out of the water, a pair of sheep decided to move between the otter and me, and start nibbling the grass. I couldn't see anything!

Thankfully they moved on, and I could get some final images of the otter before she headed upstream and away for a well deserved sleep.

I had a couple of regrets from the encounter. Firstly it arrived just hours before the workshop began, and it would have been wonderful for my client to have shared the experience, and secondly that Andy wasn't alongside me, as he's keen to capture such a sight for his upcoming book on otters.

While the workshop didn't see such an incredible encounter, we did get to see several otters, capturing images of them fishing, eating and grooming, as well as a ridiculously close encounter on the final morning, when a mother and cub scrambled over the rocks to come within fifteen feet of where we were attempting to hide. Magical stuff and left both of us smiling for hours.

The end of the trip was supposed to see me returning home, before welcoming Lyndsey to my place for a change, when she was collecting Andy's new car from the dealership where my brother works. But the sad demise of Flybe saw me diverting to pick her up from Glasgow. Made for a fun final few days at the end of a busy period, back on home turf, where Lyndsey got to enjoy some of the wildlife I perhaps take for granted, such as the great-crested grebes, and avocets at Upton Warren.

I'll soon be putting up details of workshops in the Highlands for 2021, on my website, so if you're interested in joining me for a few days, please drop me an email. Same for a bespoke tour on Mull - I'm always happy to show people around the island!

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

End Of A Decade, And An Era.

It's the last day of the year, of the decade in fact, and I felt it was perhaps time for a post, summing up my feelings on what has been a grim year for me personally, but also to lighten that mood with some wonderful encounters with wildlife, over the last few months. Some readers may wish to skip over paragraphs, as perhaps I'm using this post to aid my grieving process.

My last post was covering the Mull Summer Photography Tours, which given events since then, feels like a lifetime ago. As ever, Mull produced the goods, all the clients were happy and for Andy and me, it was a success, yet again. Leaving the island on a bit of a high, the world came crashing down when I saw my Dad afterwards.

He had been struggling with pains from the cancer that had returned, and had decided to abandon the treatment for it, as it was making him feel utterly miserable, so had made the choice to try to enjoy what he had left with just the usual levels of pain and discomfort. When I had left for Mull, he was looking thin and gaunt, but he looked skeletal when I saw him on my return, though still managing to look after himself at his home.

Normally the weeks after the Mull tours are filled with action, antics and amusing behaviour from the little owls, but it was clear when I visited the farm for the first time in late July that something was wrong. The adult was out as he usually is, but he wasn't taking the food I was putting out back to the nest, just gobbling it down himself. The nest that had been developing before I went away, had failed for some reason.

No owlets meant much reduced action, and while I managed to get some clients some good sessions with just the adult, the lack of young caused a great number of people to cancel. More disappointment for me, and I was sad for the owls too, as they had followed the national trend, where their numbers are falling. There was no apparent reason for the failure, and of course the nest is in a location I can't access to take a look.

With the lack of action at that site, I started to look elsewhere, and visited Grimley a few times. It's a fantastic site, though the recent addition of a lot of new fencing has restricted photography somewhat, but back in early September it was being visited by a couple of hobbies. I love watching these dashing falcons, as they accelerate and swoop to catch insects on the wing.

One seemed to favour a stretch along a tree line, which meant I could tuck myself into the vegetation to attempt to capture shots as it fizzed by. I won't disclose my success percentage!

The other liked hunting over the reeds on the main lake, and perching in one of the trees, always that bit too far off for a clean shot.

But they were fun as usual, and the distraction I needed at that time. As was another bird, the kingfisher. It's funny, to me at any rate, how you have periods where you fail to connect with certain species then have one chance encounter, and see them frequently thereafter. I'd not had any decent chances to photograph a kingfisher for years, then one landed in front of me at Grimley, and the spell was broken, seeing another one close up at Upton Warren days later.

A call one afternoon at the end of the first week of September was the beginning of a weekend that will be etched in my mind forever. It was one of the nurses that had been calling over to Dad to ensure he had everything he needed, and she was with him at his home. He wasn't coping any longer, and he had decided to move out and into a hospice. The nurse explained that we might have to wait for a few days for a bed to be available, but it was a horrible shock to my system, and the reality of it all set in again. The following morning, I received a call from the hospice to say a bed was available, and could I arrange for my Dad to be with them by midday.

There was no reply when I rang my Dad's doorbell, so I let myself in. Upstairs he was asleep, thankfully, though you can imagine my dread when I walked into his room after he'd not replied to my voice. I don't have many regrets with regards to how I spent time with him, what I did for him over his last few years, but I do feel strangely guilty at how I tried to rush him out of his house that morning, to get to the hospice on time. For me, perhaps I was remembering when Mum had gone in, they'd helped her to a point where she actually came home where she died, but to Dad he must have known he was leaving his home for the last time. It breaks my heart thinking about it.

The staff at the hospice were as wonderful as ever. He was tucked up in his bed in no time, with attentive nurses at hand for anything he might want. My sister and her husband had joined me by then, and we chatted to Dad, when the doctor was in seeing him. Dad was well aware of his condition, and was typically matter-of-fact about it all. We left him, promising to return the following day with one of my older brothers.

That morning, I was back at Grimley, trying my hardest to keep my mind off what was going on. My brother and I visited Dad early afternoon. He seemed more alert and in comparatively better spirits during the visit, asking me to bring in his electric shaver as he was starting to grow a beard, and he was chuckling at my description of myself being dressed in camo at Grimley, and looking like a massive tit, for want of a better term.

Just two hours after we left, as I was driving back from the local country pub I received a call from the hospice. By then I knew the number, and I knew before the lady told me, what had happened. The nurses had apparently checked in on him, got him another drink and made sure he was comfortable with pillows, and had shared some banter with him, then returned just an hour later and he'd died. I try to make light of it by saying he timed it so my brother and I had had time for a pint before the dreadful news came through, which is the sort of considerate thing he'd have done.

The hours, then days and weeks that have followed have been a blur really. I have since spent three weeks on Mull, initially running a bespoke one-to-one tour, then the fortnight of Otter Photography Tours with Andy. As usual, the wildlife on Mull shone, and the clients left with oodles of images of what they had perhaps hoped for.

We even had a pretty good encounter with a golden eagle on one of the days during the first week, on a day we had set aside for raptors. Hen harriers, buzzards of course, plus kestrels too.

Plenty of otters, despite us having to contend with difficult tides and wind direction. Experience, local knowledge and determination certainly pay dividends.

Closer to home, more kingfisher encounters kept me entertained, capturing images of them both perched and in flight.

With some glorious light too. I know there are paid hides for such things, but seeing them in the wild is pretty special.

Plus a brief sighting of a cattle egret, standing perfectly between two cows!

A couple of trips to the Highlands, a place I never visited with Dad in tow, so holds no such memories, was rewarding. I got to see a red squirrel kit that was so small and adorable, it had Lyndsey and me cooing over it like idiots. She named it Peanut, which seemed appropriate.

After last winter's nightmare with crested tits (too warm for them), it was wonderful to see several visiting the feeders at Andy's site, and with the heather in bloom, we managed some lovely images in and around the woodland floor.

And on my last visit, we managed to catch up with a flock of waxwings, which is never a bad thing. Forres always seems to get them, every winter. I don't think any have arrived in the Midlands yet, which is a shame, as I love the sound of them, as well as the sight.

So here I am again, on the last day of the decade. Next year should see some big changes for me, but more on that as and when it happens. 2019 has seen me lose my biggest supporter of my choice of career and life-style. Dad was always immensely proud of my decision to make a career out of something I love doing, despite the financial risks involved. He was always interested in what I had been up to, what wildlife I'd seen and photographed, and what plans I had. While I consoled myself initially after he'd died with the fact that all of my memories of being with him were happy ones, I'm really missing chatting to him, joking and learning from him, from his life experience and wisdom. And I'm sure that feeling will continue, as it has for Mum, who we lost at the beginning of this decade.

Dad had said to me on numerous occasions towards the end, that he'd enjoyed his life, made the most of it, with family and friends, and had no regrets. He was eighty when he died, so in cricket terms (a sport he'd played as young man and watched avidly always as a fan), he had made a decent innings. As a father one couldn't have asked for anything more, nor as a friend and in his twilight years, my companion for some of my most cherished memories, away looking for and photographing wildlife.

This past decade has seen me walk away from a successful career in IT to one where I love what I am doing, and I hope the next decade will see this choice blossom, especially if I can follow my Dad's example, and make the most of every single day.

Happy New Year, sincerely.