Tuesday 26 January 2010

Brandon's Wildfowl & Flashes Feeders

Pochards are one of those birds I can't seem to photograph in decent light, and Saturday was no exception. Brandon Marsh is a good place to see these ducks and can be excellent for low angle shots from one of the hides. Unfortunately the curse struck again and the clouds failed to part, leaving me with rather dull-looking images yet again.

I'm not moaning though, well okay, a little, as I was very pleased to get some much needed images of a pair of goldeneyes from the same hide. We also witnessed some sort of courtship between them, though it was far away from the hide under the gloom of overhanging trees. The female lay very low in the water and the male raised right up and out, surging along, following the female around. Was quite amusing actually.

Will have to remember to come back to the same hide when the great crested grebes are courting, as it should be a good spot for shots. Took some of a pair of passing grebes as they seem to be often overlooked (by me).

Sadly the green winged teal resolutely stayed as far away as it could from any hide, so I didn't even bother attempting photos of that. And by the time I'd reached the Carlton Hide, the clouds had really thickened, making it gloomy enough to consider calling it a day. Glad I didn't as I bumped into Jeff and later Max, for a bit of a chinwag. Not much around from that hide on the lake in front, but we did see a pair of bitterns flying around in the pool next to it, way too far off for shots though. Not that I'm in need of any!

Sunday was decided by a flip of a coin. Heads it'd be Upton Warren, and Tails Marsh Lane. The Queen's head pointed to UW, and another toss had me headed to the Flashes. I only had the morning to spend out and about as a game of snooker with family awaited after lunch.

I set up camp at the feeding station and watched the numerous finches, tits, buntings and ducks, darting, zipping and waddling around the area nicking bits of available food. A pair of male great spotted woodpeckers fought for drumming rights on the dead tree, and the winner took advantage, hammering away at hollow-sounding branches. A green woodpecker briefly stopped off on the same tree and was seen later on, on the telegraph pole behind.

Highlights for me were seeing a treecreeper scurrying up the tree with the feeders on, flocks of long-tailed tits swarming around the hide, and two fly-throughs by different sparrowhawks, within seconds of each other.

I have to rue the second flip of the coin though. Turns out that a goshawk was at the Moors, and I'd surely have seen it, had I been over there instead. Ah well, c'est la vie!

Tuesday 19 January 2010

New Era and Upton Warren's Stars

Late in 2006 I decided that the bug of bird photography had really caught me, and that it wasn't just a flash in the pan interest soon to be replaced with something else. Grabbing my credit card, I took a deep breath and ordered the Canon 100-400mm L lens to replace the Sigma 70-300mm one I'd used until then. I wanted more reach and stability - my hands aren't the steadiest out there.

Since then I've not regretted the decision once. It's a cracking lens, light enough to carry around all day, has IS so cancels out my shakes and has decent reach. It has allowed me to build up a wide and varied collection of images of birds (and other wildlife) and some of the shots aren't bad at all. It has also taught me how to approach certain species so as not to disturb them, and in doing so encouraged me to learn more about the world I'm in.

However, in this game you can't help but look at what your friends are using, and in a lot of cases this has been the larger end of the Canon range, prime lenses. Expensive, usually heavy and rather bulky. I've seen my friends upgrade their kit to the likes of 300mm F2.8, 500mm F4 and others already had the bazookas of the 600mm and 800mm lenses. Longer reach, better image quality. Green eyes.

So, middle of 2009 I decided that I would start looking out for an upgrade. Several lenses took my fancy, including the 300mm F2.8, the 400mm DO and of course the 500mm F4. After reading up on each, especially noting owner's reviews, I decided on the trusted favourite of bird photographers, the 500mm F4. Coupled with a teleconverter, this would give me 700mm, with IS and AF. A very tempting prospect.

Anyway, you're all probably bored of this waffle now, so I'll cut to the chase. I bought one on Saturday, 2nd hand from a very nice chap called Dave, over in a small village on the outskirts of Cambridge. He threw in the TC for a bargain price too. So as of now, I have joined the Big Lens Brigade.

"Is it as good as you hoped it would be?" I hear you say. In a word, yes.

It's a whole new world. On Sunday with the sun shining, I went to my trusted favourite spot of Upton Warren, and the additional reach of having 700mm over 400mm means all the hides suddenly become genuinely useful for photography. Before, I considered the Hen Pool, Flashes feeders, North Moors and Spider / Concrete as being only really any good, provided the birds were close.

Sunday, starting in the North Moors, I chatted briefly to a chap (Richard, who was filming from there) about the bittern, and he informed me that it had been walking around on the ice. Within minutes, out it came and repeated the action, wandering for perhaps 10 minutes along the back of the frozen lake. Long lens means better shots, though the light was awful, so there's still something I can blame my rubbish shots on.

From the East Hide, birds in the water that would have previously been really cropped, were on the verge of being too close. The lens also seems to aid tracking birds better, though that's probably because the subject is simply larger in the frame to follow.

In the morning sunshine, the teal, snipe and many shovelers looked lovely, and I took a fair few shots to try the new set up out. With the sun moving around, I opted to change sides of the pool, and tried my luck from the Bittern Hide. Fleeting glimpses of the kingfisher were a pleasant treat, though it didn't perch as the surface was still mainly frozen. A water rail was making the most of a hole made by rats to the caged bird seed, and hopping inside for some food. And the woodland birds were fluttering around, including several beautiful bullfinches.

Then, with some unfortunate timing (2 of my 'tog friends had just left), I was told of the other bittern, showing itself off in the open, over at the feeding station at the Flashes. Needless to say, I scuttled over there as quickly as possible, and sure enough, there it was, some 70 yards away mooching around in the grass.

The light wasn't great by then, and the bittern managed to position itself so a weed was in front of it generally, but even so, what a spectacle! It didn't seem to have much joy in hunting, grabbing at the grass and seeming rather ratty when nothing was caught.

Not to focus entirely on the bittern though - a lone grey heron perched in the dead tree, and looked almost prehistoric as it posed in the last of the day's sunlight.

I'm still gathering together my pennies to get the additional extras needed to use the lens, but on initial tests, I'm more than happy. The image quality is amazing, colours seem clearer and I don't have to crop the shots so much, meaning there is less noise to contend with.

I'll get more pics from the day sorted during the week, but the bittern shots are already on my gallery along with the heron. I'm looking forward to adventures with this new set up now and hoping it's as fun to use as my trusty old 100-400mm is.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Ladywalk NR and Kingsbury WP

As a birding photographer, I have various memberships for accessing reserves around the local area and nationally. Mostly I get my money's worth from them, but one I have not really used as much as I ought is the West Midlands Bird Club one, as I find Blithfield a bit distant for pics, apart from the causeway, which is public anyway. Belvide is great, but a bit of a trek and then there's Ladywalk. The latter is one I often overlook in favour of Whitacre Heath, as they're next door basically, and I really enjoy the feeder hides there.

Anyway, Saturday I decided to aim for Ladywalk for a change, and arrived to find a few cars in the snow-covered car park, and upon exiting the car, the heavens opened and a blizzard came down. So much for a sunny day! Waiting at the car park for a few moments, I watched redwings and fieldfares, along with masses of robins - seem to be loads around at the moment. Plus various finches and tits, and a blackcap which evaded my camera.

Walking down to the feeding station, I scraped the snow from the window sills of the hide and watched the volunteers provide a feast of seed and other food to the birds. They're certainly well fed here. With an icy breeze blowing into my face through the windows, I was very glad of my new thermos flask of coffee. Helped warm my cockles it did.

At the feeders were several pheasants, the males glowing against the snow. Greenfinches, chaffinches, reed buntings, gs woodies, yet more robins, blackbirds (always fighting), blue / great / coal and long-tailed tits, plus at least one marsh tit (I think). Only a distant view of a hunting sprawk - shame, I hope they'll drop in for a snack, though I doubt the feeding birds would be so keen.

After chatting to a couple of the locals, I tried a couple of the other hides, in hope of seeing one of the bitterns, but alas nothing was around. So back to the car... at which point I spotted a buzzard flying over the fields near the river. A walk in the snow ensued, and I was very surprised to flush a woodcock beneath some small trees. Scared me to be honest as it burst up. Wish I'd spotted it as I would love a shot of such a rarely seen bird.

The rest of the walk was fun - I love messing in the snow, though the birds on the river were very flighty. These included the usual mallards, coots and moorhens, though teal and gadwalls were also about. The buzzard I saw soon spotted me and took flight. S*d!

The highlight of the day came back at the car park, as I was pulling out of it, I clocked a lone goldfinch feeding from the thistle tops. The light wasn't great but gave a rather icy feel to the shots. A perfect winter shot.

After Ladywalk, I headed over to Kingsbury Water Park, in the hope of seeing the short-eared owl that has been spotted occasionally. At the car park was a pied wagtail, making the most of the sprinkling of seed people had put out. And on the walk to the meadows, the frozen lakes had grouped all the wildfowl quite close to the water's edge.

From the SITA hide, I was lucky to watch a male goldeneye preening on the only patch of water, along with some shovelers, gadwell, swans, a couple of pochards and lots of vocal widgeons.

Alas, despite standing overlooking the meadows, I failed to see the SEO. However, I did get a brief magical moment when a fox sloped by, not seeing me initially, but then stopping to look for a second. They're beautiful animals, when they live in the sticks - this one was in fine condition. Scared me later too, when it hopped the fence I was stood next to! Crafty Mr Fox!

Then as I walked off, to try to defrost back at the car, I caught a distant glimpse of a barn owl, but returning to the area, it had already flown off, and with fading light and frozen limbs, I headed home.

Monday 4 January 2010

Glossy Ibis and Fieldfares

After the lack of birds in Cumbria, a sunny Sunday provided me with the chance to get out locally, and I immediately headed over to Holt Fleet (next to the River Severn) to see the glossy ibis again. This time it was in good light, and after locating the bird, and asking those already present if they minded if I tried to get a little closer (they didn't), I used the same approaching technique as with waders.

That is walk slowly, stop, walk slowly, stop until you are close enough, and then crouch down and hope the bird comes closer. It did, and with the sun on its back and reflecting from the water around it, it looked stunning. It's another of those birds that looks larger than it is from pictures, but is actually relatively small.

I stayed still as it pottered about amongst the shrubs and through the marshland, getting various shots, some with lovely reflections.

Then, when I'd got enough pics, I slowly backed off, ensuring it wasn't spooked in doing so.

I popped over to Holt next to see what was around - loads of starlings, plus good numbers of redwings, fieldfares and finches. All unfortunately keeping their distance. Managed half a decent shot of a fieldfare in flight, which was pleasing.

Back to Upton Warren where I met up with several friends, all crammed into the hide at the North Moors. The bittern had been seen (apparently there are now 3 of them which is great news), though it didn't show fully to me. Instead I headed down the path to see the fieldfare that is standing guard over the crab apples near the concrete hide. This was a real boost after the lack of success at Holt.

It certainly didn't want to share the food, chasing away blackbirds and even the local robins! But for me, was a great chance to get some more shots of these fabulous looking birds.

Just need to find an accommodating redwing now... and isn't it about time for some waxwings to arrive? Probably read that a load have been seen in Braithwaite...

Lake District

It's been a while since I had a festive period off from work so I ensured I made the most of it by getting away. Right away, up north and to a village nestled amongst the peaks of Cumbria, Braithwaite. The idea of the break was to do some walking and birding if possible, but the weather made us alter these plans.

Snow and ice everywhere - made for scary driving conditions and forced us to walk like a penguin so as not to fall over, which is worse when you're carrying camera gear. Still, the scenery made up for it, and I switched to my old mode of photography - scenic shots. Some of which will appear here, though as this is a birding blog, I'll try to cover that angle as best I can.

At Braithwaite, the stream seemed to attract wagtails, as I saw both pied and grey hopping about, though the light was so bad I didn't attempt a shot - would have been a blurred tail instead. Also heard a tawny owl at night, and one morning there was a sparrowhawk scouting the area near the cottage. Aside from that, very quiet... which was a sign of things to come.

Around Derwentwater were loads of cheeky robins, several ravens and a few blue / great tits. On the lake I spotted a lone goldeneye plus the usual wildfowl, mostly out in the middle where the water was not frozen.
One of the days we headed to the Whinlatter Pass area, to walk in the woods, hoping to see a red squirrel. We actually saw mountains of snow - several feet deep in places, which was initially amusing to walk in, but eventually knackered my ankles from twisting and rolling on the surface under the snow. Saw a pair of buzzards, loads of goldcrests and coal tits in the trees, plus a fair few ravens, soaring by, croaking as they went.

Up on Honiston Pass, which was closed, we saw a lone kestrel, and that was performing miracles given the wind speed and inclement weather. We were almost blown off our feet in the gusts. Horrid conditions.

The best day for birding came when I headed to the coast. Initially to Grune Point near Skinburness, but the coastal path was sheet ice and I couldn't stand up on it, let alone walk along it. So I opted for a coastal drive instead, and at a place called Beckfoot, spotted some waders on the shoreline. Turned out to be a small flock of sanderlings, plus a couple of turnstones and redshanks. Despite the freezing temperatures, I crept down and crouched at the water's edge to get some shots. Various gulls came over too, and some flocks of curlew headed north past me. The light wasn't great though and the cold eventually persuaded me to head back to the warmth of the car.

Over in Dodd Woods, at the Osprey Viewpoint (needed powerful bins when they're in Africa!!) I did see some red squirrels, which were as cute as I remember them from back in 2005. Masses of tits, finches, robins, jays, crows and the odd woodpecker too, at the feeders, but never in decent light.

Ullswater held some wildfowl including tufted ducks, but it was a blizzard when I got there, so greyness covered all. The surrounding fields had some thrushes hopping about, but these never came close enough for a picture.

Finally, on the way home I dropped into RSPB Leighton Moss, only to realise that it too was completely frozen over, yielding only a few glimpses of water rails, a lone peregrine and the distant calls of bearded tits. By the centre I managed to photo a song thrush... and little else. Shame, as it looks like a good reserve. One for later in the year when it's less cold, perhaps?

So to summarise, the cold killed off my chances of birding, and the break was more of a scenic holiday than anything else. Not that I complained, especially when the local pub was no more than 30 yards from the cottage! I'll miss my pints of Jenning's Cocker Hoop.