Sunday 22 February 2009

SEOs, Firecrest & Black Redstart

Choices. Saturday was supposed to be sunny, so I had the choice of either going to find the 2 local birds of interest, the black redstart and the firecrest(s), or meet up with the lads down at Milton Keynes for the short-eared (and barn) owls. Took me about 10 seconds to decide that the others could wait, as I find watching and photographing owls a magical experience.

As with the last time, I awoke early through excitement, and was soon enroute, though this week the lack of black ice allowed me to pick up the pace somewhat. Parking in the same place, I was soon plodding through the field, and in need of a tinkle. The trees at the bottom looked like a good spot - they smelled of fox wee anyway, as I found out last time, when lying down. Mmm - lovely. Looking around, as you do when peeing, I spotted something up at the top of the field. A short-eared owl... already quartering the fields... before 9am!!

What followed consisted of me trying to sneek alongside the fields, or under trees to get as close to the birds as possible, though they kept at a decent distance, mostly. I did have some joy with the paler one, that chose to sit in one of the trees, and I also witnessed at close quarters, one hunting over the field next to me - getting some decent shots as it flew towards me, through the trees. Stunning birds - breathtaking.

By about 10am though they had decided to take a late sleep, and dunked down into the fields. This was when Ian, Joe, and then later Richard and Ben arrived. Ken was out on deliveries, and I know he's gutted not to have made it. The owls then didn't really show very much - rather disappointing. I managed to get one in a tree again, though two birders spooked it from its perch after a couple of minutes. They (the owls, not the birders) just kept dropping down into the grass, and with their camouflage, virtually disappeared doing so.

The barn owls stayed well away, so I again missed the chance of a decent shot of them, though a little birdie has told me where to aim for next time I'm in Norfolk (cheers Richard!).

Sunday started with processing the SEO shots, and I would have been content to stay sat in front of my PC, nursing a headache from the Davenports IPA the night before, but the sunshine on the window tempted me out, and over to Coleshill to see the black redstart. By then though the clouds had rolled in, and it even started to rain. Spirits were lifted though, by the arrival of Kay and Max, and also Jo (lovely to meet you!), all three wrapped up against the "mild" conditions.

The black redstart then made a very brief appearance, looking as happy with the weather as us, before disappearing into thin air, not to be seen (by me) again. Ah well, it encouraged me to head over to Hams Hall for the firecrests.

What a little oasis of wildlife! Wrens, goldcrests, long-tailed tits, chiffchaffs, robins, blue and great tits, and a distant buzzard, all spotted within 10 mins of being there. The star though, was the firecrest, and despite its "dodgy leg", it still performed acrobatics, and after a few rubbish chances, came down low enough for some pics. It was dull though, and I was glad that ISO 1000 on the camera still allows me to get "keepers"!

Monday 16 February 2009

BMC Guide

Just a quick note to say that the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) have published the Green Guide To The Uplands, as a PDF from their website.


This free publication features a couple of images I took; a Raven from Gigrin and also a Sparrowhawk from my garden.

I'm credited for the shots on page 30, with a mention of my gallery too.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Long-Eared Owls

After Saturday's adventure, Sunday was supposed to be a rest day, and started as such, with me finishing off the remaining SEO pics. After a spot of brekkie, I opted to head to Upton Warren, hoping to see the bittern. It had been sighted on the North Moors already. Arriving at the car park, I tried my best to run over Pam and Emma, but alas missed ;-) and parked up next to them for a natter. They were leaving, heading for a Maccies, after a pretty eventless visit. They were going to try their luck on the Flashes after.

I tried my luck in the car park hide, but aside from a lone male shoveler, there was nowt about. So when my phone buzzed, I hoped it was Wode, asking if I wanted a beer. It wasn't. It was something else...

It was Kay, and she had news of a pair of long-eared owls over in Walsall. Did I want to see them? Does the Pope poop in the woods? Err.. well, I did want to see them, and after a short conversation, I was blasting up the M6, praying they'd still be there.

Another call later, to confirm where I was supposed to go, and I was amongst a small party of birders, all admiring the two owls, perched in the trees on the canalside. One couldn't really be seen, as it had the light behind it, but the other, busy preening when I arrived, could be seen in its wonderful colours, albeit somewhat shaded in the tree.

The people there helpfully advised me where I could stand to get a clear view, and I'd soon filled a card on this wonderful bird. The slight breeze along the canal caught its tufts, and they really stood up on the bird's head. The one silhouetted by the light, alas decided it didn't like the attention, and burst out of the back of the trees, not to be seen again. Apparently there had been four of them! Imagine that sight. But the remaining one was enough entertainment for me, and I carried on clicking until the light had faded too much, and I had to head home.

What a weekend though. Two days, three species of owls. Fantastic.

Owl Hunting

Far too early for a weekend morning, I found myself driving down to Milton Keynes, for the first owl trip of the year. The sun was rising and made for some stunning wintery views across the snow-covered fields, though I couldn't afford more than the occasional glance, as the roads were covered with black ice. Parking up at the site, I was buzzed by a low flying sprawk, and watched it hurtle off across the road at a suicidal pace.

The sun was up by now, and everything had that golden light on it... pity there wasn't much about for photos. A kestrel darted from one of the trees as I wandered by, and a moorhen slid about on some ice. Along the hedgerow, I saw fieldfares, reed buntings, robins, great, blue and long tailed tits, and a few chaffinch dominated the dawn chorus, though they all kept well hidden in the branches.
On time, Ian and Joe rolled up, and it wasn't long before Ian's amazing sight spotted a barn owl. He must have been a buzzard or something in a previous life, as I could hardly see the barn owl with binoculars! Too far away for pics; it was something to watch while we waited for the shorties to show, and also for Ken to arrive, after his morning deliveries.

By about 11am, Ian was becoming apologetic, though why is anyone's guess. Birding is always about luck and timing. He had been to the site during the week and managed to get some stunning shots of a short-eared owl hovering near his car, and had recommended the site to us. But today, we'd not seen any, yet. As impatient as ever, I decided I would waddle on over to the area where the barn owls were (yes, another had appeared) hunting, and see if I could get anything from there.
There was one barn owl perched in a tree, so I tried to creep along the edge of a field, to get a bit closer. In doing so, I managed to spook a short-eared own from one of the trees next to me, and suddenly it was game on! It flew over to the barn owl, then back again, and perched in another tree nearby. Superb. Needless to say, Ian was soon scurrying over to get some shots from the same location, while Ken and Joe opted for a different angle. This SEO was rather pale in colour - almost ghostly.
The day then transformed from a quiet, distant view of birds to being surrounded by them. We had barn owls hunting on one side, and short-eareds (possibly up to 4 there) on the other, occasionally crossing paths and performing aerial tricks to avoid each other. Both would arc suddenly to drop down on prey, though the camouflage on shorties is so good, they effectively vanish if you take your eyes off them for a second.

After a couple of hours, me chasing them around, and the others favouring a more static location (something more to do with their kit being so heavy to carry!), we met up again and decided to celebrate the day with a pint. This gave them a chance to rest their weary legs, and me to go through some of the shots and make room for the next session.

Sadly, the light had really faded with building cloud when we got back, and while we saw both barn owls and a couple of the shorties quite close, it didn't favour good pictures, so we opted to head home. A fantastic day out, in good company and at a place considerably more accessible than the other owl haunts I've been to.

Monday 9 February 2009


Although I was anxious to make the most of the snow and the garden birds, the presence of a hawfinch over at Cannock Chase had been niggling me for some time, and with the snow and the promise of some sunshine, I headed over to the feeding station early on Sunday morning.

Upon reaching Chase Road, it was obvious that the warnings of ice were on the money, with treacherous driving conditions, though why people in these 4x4s, made for such conditions can't exceed 3mph is beyond me. My torque-laden, turbo powered, nose-heavy, understeering Skoda seemed to be coping at speeds 5 times this ;-) yet their 4wd Chelsea-tractors couldn't. Eejits.

As expected on a Sunday, the car park as busy, with folks parked around the one popular end, leaving no room for other lazy photographers (me) to get near. I set up shop a bit further down, but my seeds only seemed to attract coal tits and a bossy robin. This was soon forgotten within minutes when the hawfinch arrived at the food next-door to me, and I got my first sighting and shots of this rather strange-looking bird. Such a big beak for a small bird, and it's pastel shades made it stand out from the crowd.
Problem with Cannock Chase is that at weekends, it's a mecca for mountain bikers, hikers, joggers and most despised of all, dog-walkers. One party of the latter, despite having the whole of the Chase to walk their beasts upon, chose to walk them right past and through the bird feeding area I was taking pictures of. They could see me quite clearly in my car, lens pointed at the birds, yet chose to walk on by.
"Oh, they've all flown away" one brain-of-Britain candidate exclaimed. My response of "No f**king sh*t Sherlock" encouraged them to walk off rather quickly. At least they'd bothered to keep the dogs on a lead, unlike many. Eejits, the place is crawling with them.

The good thing about this spot is the variety of birds and how close they come to you. I saw (deep breath) the hawfinch, long-tailed, coal, willow, blue and great tits, a nuthatch, jackdaws, rooks, a treecreeper, a cuddly toy, yellowhammers, dunnocks, robins, blackbirds, a teasmaid set, greenfinch, goldfinch, bullfinch, chaffinches, stock doves, a great spotted woodpecker, a jay, magpies and some fieldfares. Didn't get photos of all, but not bad for a day sat in the car!

Garden Birding

After spending an hour counting the birds for the RSPB Garden Watch recently, I had been reminded by my resident feathery friends that my garden shouldn't be overlooked in favour of trips out and about all the time, so with the snow lingering until the weekend, I decided that Saturday would be spent in the hide, observing and photographing my garden birds.

Ensuring some of the feeders were full, I also sprinkled some seed and peanuts around the area in front of the hide, and broke off a few twigs I'd noticed would be in the way of some pics. So as not to disturb the birds after getting into the hide, I took a drink, some biscuits and an empty milk carton...
The first arrivals were the robins and blue tits. The latter zipping down from the hedge to grab a black sunflower seed, and dash back to the safety of the shrubs. The robins, being a little more bold, aimed for the seed on the ground, but still managed to hop out of shot each time I aimed the camera. They're also bullies, and consistently chased the dunnocks away, though from time to time they missed, and I got to see the hedge sparrows (another name for dunnocks) come out into the open.

Not the most attractive of birds, but in the right light, the contrast of the rich browns against the grey head is appealing. Speaking of browns, the flocks of house sparrows had arrived, but they were very cautious, and kept flying off at the slightest sound, which when there's snow falling from branches, is rather often.

However on their occasional sorties, I did manage a couple of half decent shots of the males. Aside from the "sparrahs", there were visits from great tits, long-tailed tits bounded in, pecked at the suet, and bounded away again, a wren boinged amongst the undergrowth and there was a momentary glimpse of a goldcrest in the fir tree, though it soon vanished.

Flying over early on, was the local sprawk, which sent the garden into mute mode, but it never returned, leaving the local cats to annoy me by their constant presence. Also over went one of the great spotted woodpeckers, but it didn't stop. Shame - would have liked to have tried for some closer shots of it. And there was a first too - at the top of one of the trees, too high for a photo from the hide alas, was a fieldfare, vocal as ever. A great addition to the garden list, not that I have such at thing *cough*...

Remember I mentioned a milk carton? Well if you're planning to use such a thing to avoid leaving a hide to go for a number 1, then it's best to ensure it's been washed first. The smell of off milk inside a cramped hide really isn't pleasant! I'd forgotten a sickbag!
Anyway, back to the birds - the star of the show arrived quite early, and came and went several times during the 4 hours I was camped out for. Bullfinches. There's a pair that come to the feeders, and the male is absolutely stunning. They seem to like both the sunflower seeds and also the thistle, which has largely been ignored by goldfinches since putting it back on the garden menu.
While I didn't manage to get pics of all the birds that arrived, I did manage a few and they're either online or in the queue to be uploaded soon. I was most pleased with the bullfinch shots, but as a photographer, I always want them closer or in the sunshine, so I'll be out there again.

I also need to gain the trust of some of the birds, such as the pigeons, which despite being bird-brained, are aware of my presence and refuse to feed when I'm there. While this is good in that they don't hoover up all the food, I need them to be around to assure other birds that it's safe to feed. The starlings for instance, never really came out of the trees, and with their winter plumage on display at the moment, that's a real shame.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Home And Away

As my brother had got some free tickets to see Worcester Warriors play Sale Sharks on Saturday afternoon, the morning was going to have to be a close-to-home job, so I opted to erect the hide, and try my luck in the back garden. The problem at this time of year though is light, and it never really got light enough for good shots of anything, until it was time to head out.

Nevertheless, I was rewarded for my efforts by the arrival of the local pair of bullfinches, as well as the usual suspects. A coal tit came in close briefly, though an angry blue tit soon chased it off. Not very friendly! And a trio of long-tailed tits also paid a visit, taking it in turns to peck at the suet block.

The rugger was good, though I'd have preferred to have seen Worcester win. Sale were just a bit too good for them on the day, and the Warriors lost some key players early on.

Sunday was the planned birding day though. An early start - it was barely light when I rolled up at Kay & Max's place, with Reg just pipping me to the closest parking spot. Wasn't long before we were off ooop norf, heading in convoy to Doxey Marshes, to meet up with Richard Powell and Stuart (Alrewas Birder). Max's map reading skills were shown off to the, erm, max, as he took us on a detour off the Stafford junction from the M6, in the wrong direction. I followed, thinking the plan had changed, until a rather sheepish-looking Max made for a U-turn!

Moments later, he was at it again, scaring the local dog-walkers, as he tried to navigate his car down a footpath. I stayed back, chuckling...
Eventually we made it to the meeting place, except there was no-one there; we were early to be fair. Opting for a nose around ourselves, we wrapped up and trudged off across the rather barren-looking reserve. The light was woeful, and it rapidly became clear it was going to be one of those days for looking, not taking...

Picking our way through the mud, we spotted a pipit or lark, and there were some finches around, gold and green, though in the light they all looked black. By the viewing platform, which had a rather delapidated screen in place and had to be the coldest place on the reserve, we spooked a water rail, which dashed by in seconds, disappearing into the reeds. Waaaay too far for pics were some geese, which Kay identified as being geese. No, seriously she spotted barnacles, though how she could see them on the geese is beyond me.

At this point, Richard arrived, wisely wearing wellies, and we went for a wander back to the main lake where we were supposed to meet up with Stuart. However, I had spotted something perched nearby, and snuck off for a closer look. Looking as chuffed with the conditions as me, sat a female kestrel, and she allowed me fairly close for a pic. An approaching walker scared her off eventually, though it could have also been the sound of my fellow birders, looming up over the hill towards me, all of them present at last.

A brief break from the gales and cold in a metal hide, allowed me time to review some pics and delete the odd 100 or so rubbish ones... and also get some fluid back in my eyes. Gales and contact lenses don't mix. Exiting the hide gave us a surprise. The sun came out, and with it... erm, not much else. Nevermind. We did get to see some tufted ducks, mallards and swans, the latter giving a nice fly-by. And on the walk back to the cars I spotted a reed bunting in someone's garden.

Next stop was for a gull viewing... anyone that knows me, knows how enthralled I am with gulls. The view point was from a bridge at a place called Cold Meece. I couldn't see any shivering mice, though a local common buzzard was mewing in a tree nearby, so perhaps it had caught one? I soon lost interest, and wandered over the road to see what was about the river side. Much more interesting, with goldfinches, long-tailed tits and a treecreeper mooching about.

Final stop the owls of Park Hall. Or as it turned out, the absent owls of Park Hall, as neither could be seen anywhere. Oh well, such is life. At this point in proceedings, I had to head back to civilisation, so left the others to risk their lives on the moors. Even the news from Kay that I'd missed the sightings of a short-eared owl and a hen harrier, didn't make me regret having to leave early, as I sat warm in my conservatory, sipping hot chocolate, watching the garden birds once more.