Thursday 18 June 2009

Redstarts & Peregrines

Redstarts at Cannock

About this time last year, Dave Hutton and Steve Seal invited me over to Cannock Chase to join them photographing common redstarts. The birds had successfully raised a number of fledglings and they were down from the usual perches in the canopy of the woodland, at fern-top level, feeding the young still. It was a wonderful few hours and one I was keen to repeat this year.

Parking at Seven Springs, at an ungodly hour, I tried the same spots as last year, trying to remember what their call is like. I could hear robins, blackcaps, other woodland birds including wood warblers, but nothing different.

So I opted to wander down to the Stepping Stones area, about a mile away. It's a nice walk, and the sun was out so I didn't mind the hike. On arrival at the stream I immediately spotted a brownish bird singing on a dead tree. Bins out and I'd bagged a spotted flycatcher. Excellent - one of my targets from the Wyre Forest I'd missed out on recently.

However, it didn't want to play ball, and remained at a real distance from me. Whilst trying to creep up on it, to get a more detailed shot, I spotted something behind, on another dead tree. A male redstart, glowing gloriously in the morning sunshine. Fantastic. Target acquired!
Following the bird, it led me into the woods, and I soon spotted the area where it was returning to. The female was around too, and with decent light, I was soon lying amongst the ferns, taking shots as the birds went by.

Thankfully I'd remembered to pack my mozzie spray as they were abundant, and with me trying to keep out of sight, meant I was often encountering the horrid creatures. Didn't get a single bite though - good stuff that "Jungle Formula".
After receiving a half message from Ken, I tracked back to the Stepping Stones to bring both him and Ian back to the spot, so they could also get some shots. It was a first for them and they seemed as chuffed to see this colourful bird as I did, 12 months back.

Peregrines At Clee Hill

The Sunday started with a very pleasant 9 holes of golf at the Lickey Hills course, and followed with a trip over to Clee Hill. This spot has proved to be wonderful for seeing peregrine falcons, and on Sunday the chicks had already fledged. Three fabulous youngsters, dotted about on the cliff face, practising flying, pecking around at old meals, crying for their parents and doing a rather strange 80s style head-bobbing dance move.

On a couple of occasions, one of the juveniles chose to fly over to a feeding post near to the viewing area giving me cracking views of it. I'd recommend not trying to climb the slope behind the viewing area in trainers though, as grip is limited, and sliding down clutching a camera, trying to avoid (and failing) sheep droppings, isn't fun. Amusing after the event though, of course!

I spent a few hours watching them. The parents came and went, bringing back a kill late in the day. The juveniles flew around at times, gamboling together in mid-air, practising skills needed later in life I assume. At one point, a pair chased one another right over my head, forcing one of them to land on the grass behind me. Taking off again, it flew within 20 feet of me, giving me a real glare as it went by.

I guess it won't be long till they're catching their own meals, so I expect I'll be over there again soon, to try to get some more shots before they go. An impressive and unforgettable sight though, seeing 5 peregrine falcons in the air at one time.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Woody Feeder

With a grim forecast for the weekend, plans of going to see redstarts or peregrines were washed away, and it did look like one for the pub. Until that is, I spotted one of the local woodpeckers on the suet block. Hmm, I thought... maybe it's a good time to rig up that feeder I've been thinking about for a while.

Down to the garden centre, and a short while later I was constructing it. A pole, a squirrel baffler, a couple of feeder attachments and a log was what was needed, and after about 30 mins of chin scratching and drilling, I had the rather Heath Robinson affair rigged up out in the garden.

Smearing peanut suet into the holes, I retreated back to the conservatory and out of the monsoon. Would it work?

The answer was a resounding yes. And within an hour of putting it out, one of the adults and a juvenile woodpecker was sat on it, pecking at the suet. Alas it was too late in the day and still too wet for getting pics, but it gave me hope for the Sunday.

After a very wet morning, Sunday afternoon brightened up. The rain went and sun appeared, and despite the hide being damp, I took the opportunity to try for some pics.

Masses of starlings kept landing on the ground feeders, and they were amusing to watch, as they bicker and fight over bits of food. The juveniles, while feeding themselves, still chased the adults into the surrounding trees, pestering for food occasionally.

Then I heard that distinctive shanking sound of a woodpecker, and seconds later, a rather wet looking juvenile swooped in and on to the feeder. What fantastic views. Full frame - sometimes too close in fact - thank goodness for the zoom.
It had a little peck at the suet first, then must have heard my camera's shutter, as it sat very still for a few moments, blinking and looking around. They're quite cute actually - a stark contrast to the vicious, hungry birds that seem to launch out of the nest hole at the doting parents.

Once it realised the clicking wasn't harmful, it carried on pecking at the suet, stopping every so often to clean its beak on the log top. I may have to change the log to a longer one, as a lot of the shots I got included the top, which isn't that great. Nevermind, I got some different ones when a couple of the arguing starlings clattered into the woodpecker, prompting a fight back, and then a fall down to the ground. There of course was some more food, and it wasted little time in poking around amongst these new logs.

Hopefully I'll get some more shots of the adult birds, and of course more of this fine young bird, as it grows into maturity. A good result from an idea over a pint one Friday evening...

Friday 5 June 2009


Yesterday reminded me of why Upton Warren can be so special. I love to travel around the UK in search of a variety of subjects, but it is great when somewhere on your doorstep yields results.

On arrival at the Moors, a birder informed me of a curlew sandpiper over on the Flashes, so back into the car and over there for a look. In the hide was Stuart and we both set about trying for a shot of this wader. Unfortunately, like the shore lark, it favoured one of the islands that bit too far for a decent shot from my lens, so I only managed record shots.

Speaking to Stuart about his recent images, I decided to head over to the Moors to try my luck with the kingfishers he had seen frequently lately. Setting up camp in the "spider" hide (the disabled access one called Water Rail on the west side) I was soon enjoying fabulous views of one of the kingfishers, perched and then fishing in front of the hide.

Aside from perched shots of a kingfisher, I have often tried and always failed to get a shot of one in action. I have a couple of half decent shots of one hovering from over at Brandon Marsh, but they were fair crops.

So when the kingfisher returned to the same perch, and the light was still good, I thought I'd try my luck. Setting the camera up to have a fast shutter speed, I tried to anticipate where the bird would try to fish. This meant aiming the camera at the water and trying to keep one eye looking through the camera, and the other at the bird. Could have done with being a chameleon!

Anyway, mostly I got shots of a blurred bird, or of a sharp splash or nothing at all, but one of the shots came out okay. (See my Gallery for a larger version)

It's not brilliant, but it's the best shot of a kingfisher I have taken to date, and I'm chuffed to bits with it. So hats off to Upton Warren for yet another magical moment.

Monday 1 June 2009

End Of May

After the barren spell of April, filled with camera woes, I had hoped that May would get things rolling again. It did, and then some. What a month! This is just a brief summary of the end of it, to cover a few of the local trips made.
Continuing on the Bank Holiday weekend, after the effort of the Long Mynd, I opted for a more leisurely couple of days for the Sunday and Monday.

Brandon Marsh

Brandon Marsh comprised of 2 sessions. Initially I spent a while watching and photographing the great spotted woodpeckers going to and from the nest, bringing back food and taking away the waste, though the chick couldn't be seen. Still too small I guess. Fantastic to watch these birds and observe their behaviour.
With the water level too high for the kingfishers at Carlton, it meant I could have a look around the other hides, and after bumping into Pam & The Gang, I was soon headed to the East Marsh hide, where apparently a pair of whitethroats were performing. Were they ever! Bringing food back to the nest, just a few feet from the hide window, then on the way out, perching for a breather on the tops of shrubs.
Around the rest of the reserve there were the usual warblers, a few cuckoos calling (always a fabulous sound I think), masses of swifts, swallows and martins swooping by, plus a few terns, flying with their awkward style overhead.

Upton Warren (Flashes)

Monday was a trip to Upton Warren, after I had been neglecting it somewhat as of late. The Hen Pool at the Flashes was the first target, though with the rapidly growing reeds, and a family of blue tits on the side of the hide, there was little to photograph, with the warblers keeping a fair distance from me. That said, patience paid off, and in a brief moment, a reed warbler hopped by, low down amongst the reeds, and I managed to get a couple of shots.

On to the main hide at the Flashes, and I was soon snapping away at the avocet chicks. They seem so happy pottering around in the shallows, swishing this way and that after food, oblivious to the carnage around them from their protective parents.

Cute as they are, they were outdone by a pair of lapwing chicks which have got to be one of the most adorable looking fluffballs out there. They alas kept their distance, so I could only manage some heavily cropped pics of them. Lovely to watch though, again with their watchful mother standing guard.

Brandon Marsh (Revisited)

This last weekend took me again to Brandon Marsh, to check up on the woodpeckers. The youngster, a vicious individual is now almost fledged, and was launching out of the nest hole to get at the parents' food, and gave them a nasty peck if they strayed too close without any food being on offer.

Aside from this though, the marsh was pretty quiet for photography, so didn't hold our attention that long. And there was no sign of the shrike that had appeared the day before, albeit at a massive distance!

Wyre Forest and Clee Hill

Sunday was initially going to be a trip to the Chase, but reports from those in the know (cheers Dave!) persuaded me to head elsewhere, to Wyre Forest as it happened. With lots of decent shots of pied flycatchers under my belt from Devon, I wasn't that bothered by the lack of them around the woods, though it is a little worrying not to see any. Nor did I see any redstarts, though they were probably still around the tops of the trees.

I did get to see a chattering male blackcap though, and several wood warblers, the latter being a master in the art of landing on obscured perches or being against a bright background, so limiting my photo options. Grrr.

By early afternoon the mozzies had reminded me why I hate them so much, and with an itchy hand, I made the hike back to the car park, bumping into Pam & The Gang (again!!) as they were out for a pleasant walk around the woods. They didn't fancy the trip to Clee Hill, so we parted and I soon found myself sitting on one of the benches at the viewing area...

Though not for long, when I heard the cry of a peregrine, and spotted it sat relatively close on the cliffs. A photo opportunity not to be missed, especially as it soon flew off. It returned a short while later, with the other parent in tow, and they perched further along the cliffs. After perhaps catching their breath, it was off hunting again, and they zipped off out of sight down to the low lands.

While they were away, out of the distance came a large bird of prey. A buzzard, I guessed, as there are loads around. But no, the flying style was all wrong. A red kite. Excellent. As I lined up some shots hoping it would come closer, I heard that wail again, and like a missile, from nowhere appeared one of the adult peregrines.

I don't think the kite knew what on earth it was, but it certainly didn't want to stay around to find out! And after a couple of very near misses, it had changed direction and soared off and away from the nest area. The peregrine circled overhead for a brief moment, before hurtling off to join the hunt again.

Another magical moment though to savour, and one to end a great month's worth of adventures.