Tuesday 26 May 2009

Early Start In Shropshire

One of the many pleasant things I've noted from bird photography is meeting such good people when you're out and about, and hence making new friends. One of these friends, Rob Smith, emailed me last week to ask if I fancied a trip out to the Long Mynd area of Shropshire, to try our luck with finding whinchats.

The day started very early indeed and after a slight detour, we met up on the top of the moors, to set off for a look around. The area is very picturesque with steep-sided valleys, heather and gorse, streams and marshes, all looking very colourful in the early morning sunshine.

The only problem with the place are the suicidal creatures. Both sheep and rabbits seem intent on being run over, and make little effort to move out of the way, which is a tad daft when the hills there meant my car's brakes were almost on fire from over-use!

Anyway, back in the valleys, we were trying (well, Rob was) to remember what a whinchat call sounded like, and we tried discounting other calls to identify it. We could hear willow warblers, wrens and whitethroats, and some others, from meadow pipits and skylarks. Occasionally though, we'd hear something else, similar to a phone ring, and we'd try to follow where the call came from.

Easier said than done! We ended up splitting up, with me venturing up a smaller valley after thinking I'd spotted one. I had, but despite sitting in a bush and hiding, they didn't return. As the weather was so nice, I decided to go to the end of the valley, where there was a rocky outcrop devoid of sheep droppings, to sit down for a while. The steep hills were killing my legs! A willow warbler sat nearby, singing its heart out which was a lovely sound. Moments later though, it was joined by another song...
That of a whinchat. Fantastic! As I was below the bird, the sky behind had such a deep blue richness, that when coupled with the bird's bright colours made for some great shots. The bird seemed not to be bothered by me at all, and hopped between a few perches, singing away. Eventually, another one flew over, and this one took off and followed.

Alas Rob hadn't seen them, so I felt somewhat guilty that I'd managed to bag some shots of the target bird and he'd not. The luck of the draw I guess, and he got some crackers of the willow warbler and a kestrel whilst I was off roaming.
Deciding that we ought to press on, we headed to a small woodland area nearby, off the Mynd, where pied flycatchers would be present. They were, but the light was fading with increasing cloud, so getting shots proved tricky. In addition to the flycatchers though, we saw wrens, a redstart and a rather bizarre grey wagtail, that enjoyed seeing its own reflection on cars. We got some amusing shots of it perched on window-sills and door mirrors - not the usual choice of a perch!

Next stop was Clunton Coppice, where Rob hoped we would see wood warblers. We did, though they remained pretty elusive high in the canopy. The woods were carpeted with bluebells and the smell from them was gorgeous. I found myself stood amongst them, just breathing in their scent.

The woods were alive with the usual birds - robins, tits, blackbirds, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I did see a female pied flycatcher but it was in very gloomy light, and she was gone in an instant.

The final part of the day was spent at Clee Hill, as it is on the way back home. The peregrine gave a very brief flight as we got there, but then sat resolutely in the same place for a good hour or so, long enough for me to get bored and go home. Rob had a bit more luck later, when it flew around, but for me, I needed to get back.

A superb day though, with some varied birds in some more great company. And some more locations to visit again, though I don't think I'll be rushing to get up at 5am too many times!

Somerset: Shapwick Heath

The last entry for my south west trip. On the way back from Devon I thought it would be worthwhile stopping off at a location recommended to me by a birder I spoke to in Yarner Wood. He said it was the place for seeing hobbies.

The reserve is actually a large area comprising of 2 reserves. The one I went to was Shapwick Heath, but across the road is Ham Wall, the RSPB one, both within sight of the Glastonbury Tor. The area is a mixture of woodland, reedbeds and waterways, and is rich with all sorts of wildlife.

Walking along the path towards the hides, my day started well when I spotted a marsh harrier, quartering the reeds. This is only the second one I have seen (and recognised what it was), so I stopped and viewed it for a few moments, before it dropped out of sight into the reeds.

I had hoped for hobbies here, but the weather was against me, with very strong winds, keeping a lot of the flying insects perched on the ground. There were a few around, but not the 40 or so mentioned earlier that week. Still, I got a couple of close views as they hurtled past the hide I was in.

Better than this was spotting an otter though. Typically the camera wouldn't lock on, as it dived and surfaced amongst some reeds, and just when I thought I would get a shot, it dived never to appear again! It's the first wild otter I have seen since the one in the sea off Mallaig harbour, in Scotland in 2005. Beautiful creatures.

With limited time, I headed to the hide closest to where I'd seen the marsh harrier, and hoped. The showers were becoming more frequent and heavier, so I considered staying in the hide for that bit longer, to allow one to pass over. Wise move, as a harrier strayed into view, flying towards us and off over the hide roof into the wooded area beyond.

Definitely a place to come to again, especially as Ham Wall has breeding bitterns to view. Just need to time it for a day when the weather is a bit calmer!

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Devon: Dawlish Warren

Part 4 of the Devon trip

I think this will be the last entry for the Devon part of the trip. I popped into a place called Stover which is a small park with woodland and a lake, and some waterways extending from it. It might have had potential, but there were so many folks around from nearby campsites, it was too busy for anything decent to show up I suspect. There's an interesting walkway though, by some feeders that were attracting woodland birds, such as nuthatches, but the light that lunchtime was poor, so I only managed one shot I think.

Dawlish Warren is a lovely place to mooch around though. Comprising of meadows that attract butterflies, hedges that are alive with bird song, woodland with hidden gems, several fresh water pools and reedbeds for wildfowl and warblers alike, dunes to wander aimlessly across, beaches to stare out to sea from, an estuary to watch waders in, a hide to well, hide from the rain in, and the sky, filled with swifts, swallows and martins, to remind you how bad you are at photographing fast-flying birds!

I visited the reserve several times during the week, in varying weather conditions. I had read on the internet that there was a spotted flycatcher around, but it never showed itself to me. One for the Wyre Forest I reckon.

I did see a few whitethroats around, giving themselves away with their calls and warbling sounds. Along with them in the hedges were chiffchaffs and a few willow warblers, but they stayed high in tops of trees. There are a lot of "normal" birds to be found here, such as blue, great and long-tailed tits, blackbirds and robins too. Amongst the woods were blackcaps, though they never seem to come out when I'm around.

On the meadows I spooked a green woodpecker, which hurtled off into the woods, cackling as it went. The local kestrel wasn't around either, which was a shame.

On the beach I spotted a flock of sanderling & dunlin (though I still can't tell some of them apart, other than looking for the kink in the beak). I was able to creep up on them using some wooden breaks as cover, and got some interesting shots into the sun, as they pottered about on the water's edge.

Alas the weather closed in on me later in the week, and I found myself sheltering under hawthorn bushes, watching Canada goslings waddle around in the rain. On the pond, there was a lone little grebe, which kept at a distance, a heron watching over all the fuss, plus coot and moorhen chicks, making cute peeping sounds as they followed their parents around.

Keep an eye on the gallery over the next few days, as I have a few other pics to add that have missed this first sweep. There's also another entry for the holiday left over, which will be added soon... but it's not in Devon.

Devon: Yarner Wood

Part 3 of the Devon trip.

I was surprised given the weather and the fact it was Sunday that Yarner Wood wasn't more crowded. Sure, the car park had few spaces left when I arrived, but walking round it seemed deserted.

First stop for me was on the heathland side, out of the woods. From here the countryside opens up, I guess into Dartmoor, but there are the classic rolling hills of Devon, usually watched over by a few mewing buzzards, circling overhead. It is also a great place to see stonechats, one of my favourite birds as they offer such good views, steadily getting closer to you, if you are patient and sit still, chattering between themselves as they do.

Other birds here include tree pipits and chiffchaffs, both seen but only from a distance. There are supposed to be Dartford Warblers too, but a local I spoke with later on thought they'd been moved on by some very cold easterly winds over the winter months, as he'd not seen any since.

Having took a few shots, I thought it was best to find the other stars of Yarner, which meant a walk deep into the woods. It didn't take long to locate the nest boxes being used, as they're actually alongside one of the main paths, but it was obvious to me that being stood in the open wouldn't help me get any shots. So, I clambered off the track, and opted to hug a tree nearby, and wait. Took only a matter of seconds for the male to fly back in, beak full of grubs for his family. After dropping it off in the box, he exited and perched a short distance away, in the scattered sunlight - a fine looking male pied flycatcher.

I first saw one of these birds a couple of years ago here, but got my best views in mid Wales last year. The views here though, were just as good. The male I think, must have been new to it all, because he didn't appear to be that good at catching flies! The males in the neighbouring nests seemed to be coming and going all the time, yet occasionally the female on this one would come out, fly off, catch some flies and return with a rather sheepish-looking male in close pursuit.
While I'd love to have stayed for hours, the size of the wood ants scurrying over my boots, and the itch from some sort of bite on my ankle, persuaded me to move on. I had hoped to also catch up with some wood warblers, and a passerby told me where to look. However, as he'd also said, they were tending to stay in the canopy at this time of year, so while heard and glimpsed many, photographing one was not an option.

Maybe next time...

Sunday 17 May 2009

Devon: Berry Head

Part 2 of the Devon trip

Berry Head last year had given me my first (and only) views of cirl buntings, and after the success of the book cover, I felt obliged to return. The day was fair and the breeze, though easterly, wasn't over-powering.

Wandering from the car park, I soon remembered where to go, though a look over the bay by the quarry face, to see at close quarters the anchored oil tankers proved to be a wise move. Whilst glaring at these greedy ships (apparently they're not docking until the price of oil rises!!) I heard the unmistakeable wail of a peregrine, and scanning the quarry face soon revealed one sat near a nest. A bit distant, but a welcome sight.

Off to the spot where I stumbled across the cirl buntings last time proved fruitless, so I opted to loiter near a bench in view of the sea bird colony on the cliffs, on the other side of the headland. Another smart move, as within minutes of this, I heard the sound of cirl buntings in the gorse nearby. It didn't show though for a while, but eventually one popped out above the cover, and I managed some half decent shots.

Then, out of the blue, one of the cirl buntings burst out of the bushes and landed just behind me, in full view. It was such a surprise that I almost forgot to take pictures! Fortunately that part of my addled brain kicked into gear, and I got some lovely shots of it, with an uncluttered backdrop. Superb!

And as quickly as they'd arrived, they vanished around the headland. Nevermind, something else caught my attention. I say "caught", though what I should have said is tore it way. Looking towards the top of the cliffs, I spied something that certainly wasn't a gull. Too angular in shape. Before my brain could compute, a second peregrine went flying past overhead, to join the other one. Oh yes... time to move over there, I thought.

At the edge of the cliff, I found I could lie down and the peregrine falcons were hovering in the breeze, almost motionless, looking for targets, left and right. At times they were less than 20 feet above me - an incredible sight, though as usual, the light wasn't perfect and the birds were ahead of me somewhat, obsuring their heads. I wasn't complaining though! Crikey!

When the peregrines weren't around, the fulmars kindly filled in, providing me with very close views of them as they rode the breeze up the cliffs and into the sky above me. I love the look of these birds - they seem so happy as they fly along, feet trailing carefree behind them.

Every so often, one of the peregrines would return to the nest, then pop up again from the other side, and swoop back to join the hunt again. And when one of them spotted something worth going for, the wings angled back, akin to a fighter plane, and it would take off at an unbelievable pace down the cliff face.
Birding has its moments, and this rates up there with the best. Heaven is a place on earth, Berry Head on a breezy, sunny day, to be precise!

After the joys of the first afternoon here, I felt compelled to return the next, though the weather was starting to turn. The breeze was now gusty and at times made standing still almost impossible. And, as a result it meant the peregrines weren't flying, so despite walking up and down the headland, it appeared to have been a wasted trip.

Then again, perhaps not. Because as I was taking pics of long haired goats (real animals, not inbred twitchers ;) ) I spotted something black and seemingly out of place on the edge of the cliff. A quick check through the bins and I had a new target.

Walking very briskly, I soon was approaching it, and found the strong winds were buffeting me off my feet - IS is good, but not that good! So, it meant dropping to the deck, and crawling, commando-style towards the bird. I got some very strange looks from dog walkers nearby, but hell, it was worth it for getting shots of a peregrine falcon, perched on the cliff edge, amongst some flowers.

Stay tuned for more from the Devon week soon...

Devon: Exminster Marshes

Part 1 of my week spent in Devon.

Running alongside the Exeter Canal, and next to that, the River Exe, Exminster Marshes provides opportunities to see various warblers, swallows, swifts and martins feeding on the numerous flying insects, plus at this time of year, hobbies.

I paid several visits to this reserve (it's actually an RPSB one), mainly to photograph the hobbies hawking over the marshes, but I didn't refuse other birds that I encountered either. The first bird that caught my attention was a reed warbler, but that refused to come out to play and I was soon distracted by another more tuneful song, that of the appropriately named song thrush.

Moving away from the reed warblers, the more accessible sedge warblers at the marshes gave me some chances when the wind dropped and the reeds stopped swaying, to add a few more shots of them to my collection.

The hobbies proved to be as difficult to photograph as ever, tending to favour the area right in the middle of the reserve (miles away from the footpath) to hunt, and whenever they opted to stray closer, they'd be against the sun or bright sky, giving darker results.

I did have a very close encounter with one though, which caught me by surprise as it hurtled over my head to nab a dragonfly from beside the railway line behind me, then changing direction in an instant, it was way out of sight before I could realise the missed opportunity!

The hobbies though, didn't have the reserve to themselves in terms of being the hunters. A lone kestrel popped over briefly one morning, and when everything seemed to go quiet on another day, scanning the pylons I spotted a bigger hunter, a peregrine falcon.
But the hunters were all outdone by a warbler. Bursting into its distinctive call, a Cetti's warbler kept mooching up and down the hedgerow behind where I favoured to stand for the hobbies. Occasionally I'd see it fly by, or perhaps poke its head out, but the usual chances for a shot, or so I thought.

Realising from its song that a bird was right next to me in the hedge, I backed off to see what would happen. The Cetti's raised its head from the brambles and I started to fire off shots, and it was this noise that seemed to intrigue the bird, tempting it to pop right out in the open, on a fence for a couple of seconds, to see what the clicking was. Needless to say I took advantage, and got the best shots of a Cetti's warbler I've ever managed.

Other birds photographed included a few grey herons, a mute swan and a pheasant looking as miffed with the gloomy conditions that day, as me.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend

Firstly thanks for the kind and amusing comments about the covers lately. Famous? Infamous more like!

The weekend started with an early visit to Jessops on Saturday morning, to pick up the latest toy, a Canon 50D. I had wanted another 40D to fall back on, should the other one fail again, but Jessops failed to provide a new one initially, and then when they couldn't source a replacement, they kindly made a deal on a 50D instead.

With some decent weather forecast for the Saturday I had arranged to meet up with Ian at Rutland, to catch up with any osprey action going on. As usual, Ian travelled light... not, with a backpack that would worry an army cadet! Some impressive kit he has though, and he's not wealthy enough yet to afford a butler to carry it for him. ;-)

Down to the hide by the reedbed, that used to be opposite the old nest site... it's further from the nest now, but there's more to see. Within moments of being sat down, we saw a couple of water rails dart across the channels, and the air was filled with the warbling of sedge and reed warblers. Occasionally we would also hear the distance call of a cuckoo.

The osprey, however wasn't very active, and unlike last year when there was a pair, this one seemed content to sit on or near the nest. In fact, during our vigil for most of the day, it flew only a couple of times, giving us a solitary flyby. Disappointing.

Fortunately we were entertained by sedge warblers and Ian enjoyed a flyby from a lapwing, or was it an osprey? ;-)

Still, Rutland isn't a million miles away, and I'm sure we'll go again.

Sunday was a golfing day - I really need to go to the range. My game was woeful, except one shot with a rescue club, when in anger, I managed to club it from over 200 yards to within 3 feet of the hole. Shame the other 100 shots were rubbish.

Monday turned out to be grey and I should have stayed in bed! I didn't and opted to try out the new camera down at Upton Warren, at the Hen Pool. Usually a good spot for warblers, if you don't mind the marsh smell and the small hide. It was quite cosy in there actually, especially given the occasional pitter-patter on the roof when it rained.

I did get to see both reed and sedge warblers, though the Cetti's never showed themselves, just blasting out their call, as the moved amongst the undergrowth.

The gutter for me, was that whilst I was sat in there, a female marsh harrier was hunting on the Flashes next door to me. Such is life!

Monday 4 May 2009

Upton Warren Guide

Quick entry to note that the Worcs Wildlife Trust leaflet for (the Christopher Cadbury Reserve at) Upton Warren is now distributed across the reserve which provides a good deal of information about the reserve, plus a map and some of the star birds that frequent it.

Why am I mentioning this you might ask?

Well, I was contacted by WWT asking if they could use an image of mine for the cover of it. Always glad to help out the Trust, I said they could and now a picture of an avocet features on the front. It was taken some time ago with the old 350D over on the Flashes, on a sunny day in May 2007.

Playa Blanca, Lanzarote

The week in Lanzarote was never supposed to be a birding holiday, but I took along my old 350D and Sigma 70-300mm lens, just in case anything interesting cropped up. I was actually surprised at the sort of birds around, considering how close to Africa the resort is - nothing really spectacular, though it has to be said, I didn't spend a great deal of time looking!

Highlights included a hoopoe (seen from the coach window on the way back to the airport) and an Egyptian vulture, typically seen when I was reading a book on the apartment balcony. So no pics of either of those!

The resort (Playa Blanca) was home to masses of sparrows and collared doves mainly. I did see a pair of kestrels hunting near the 5 Star hotel (must have taste) and something bright yellow flashed by one afternoon, flying like a woodpecker. Not sure what it was though.

On the shoreline were common sandpipers, whimbrels and turnstones, plus a few herring gulls, though these mainly stayed over the sea. And on the patches of rough ground between complexes, flocks of pipits busied about.

It was good to see a number of swifts darting around the skies too, though I didn't even attempt to photo these.