Friday 14 May 2010

South West Trip: Day Five (Somerset)

RSPB Ham Wall

Ian's voluntary work with the osprey project at Rutland Water meant he had to leave on the Tuesday, and it made sense given our location closer to his home. I however, returned to Teignmouth for the night, packed up and returned to Somerset again in the morning, only this time to Ham Wall, an RSPB reserve over the road from Shapwick Heath.

The layout of the reserve is different and you get closer to the pools and reedbeds, though there are no proper hides, so shelter is limited when showers come over! However, with warm conditions it was a fabulous place to be, and once again the hobbies filled the sky, hawking insects overhead.

Being closer to the pools, meant being closer to the booming bitterns, and their sound resonated through you - was a strange yet memorable experience. As was watching a pair of bitterns having a mid-air fight. Was a bit distant for decent shots, but great to observe.

It was uncomfortable at times, but I took the decision to carry around my 40D and 100-400mm lens, as well as the larger, more cumbersome 50D attached to the 500mm on a tripod. Was a very wise move, as it allowed me to quickly focus in on birds flying directly over me, such as a bittern that seemed to appear from nowhere!

At the back of the main pool was a smaller pond, filled with croaking marsh frogs, which sounded alot like baby crocs, if you've heard them on nature programmes, and despite being bright green, they blended in well with the bright green algae.
From the edge of the lake I chuckled as a great crested grebe took out her newly hatched "humbugs" on her back into the lake, then unceremoniously dumped them into the water when she ruffled her feathers.

Back at the main entrance, I was joined by working members of the RSPB who were monitoring the movements of the bitterns, and I had great views of them flying over the reedbeds once more.

Reluctantly I dragged myself away to beat the traffic home, but once more, the south west had delivered some wonderful memories and some decent photos as a result.

Please bear with me as the images are added to his blog over the next few days, and also to my web galleries.

South West Trip: Day Four (Somerset)

Shapwick Heath

Leaving Devon for a day, we headed towards Glastonbury in Somerset to a reserve I'd popped into last year on a cold windy day. This time the breeze was more gentle and it was warm, and my word, what a difference. When the sun came out, so did the insects and the skies were filled with dozens of hobbies. I've never seen so many before and it was an amazing sight. They outnumbered the swifts and swallows at times!

In addition to the hobbies were bitterns. Booming and flying between patches of reeds. We also saw them clambering around the the reeds and chasing each other too.

On one of the larger pools was a garganey although too distant for even a record shot, and we caught a couple of glimpses of marsh harriers flying by.

And we spotted cuckoos all over the reserve, including 3 of them flying over the reeds in front of us, but we were too surprised to get a decent shot!

South West Trip: Day Three (Devon)

Yarner Wood

With Monday morning came cloudless skies and I took the chance to head over to Yarner Wood, at the edge of Dartmoor. To get good pics in woodland you need bright conditions. Getting out of the car we were met by a birder who informed us that the woods were alive with pied flycatchers and wood warblers, and that the pool by the road held a pair of male mandarin ducks. An excellent start though they only gave clear views later on when I returned to the car park.

Pied flycatchers are wonderful little birds that I seem to have decent success in seeing and photographing and Yarner Wood is a favoured spot for me to see them. Didn't take long to find a pair and we were soon both snapping away at them in the shards of sunlight falling through the woodland canopy.

Moving further into the woodland, we located another pair and as the area was a bit more open, set ourselves up and waited. Was definitely worth it when the male posed on a great perch for us, and in good light too. We watched him catch insects and present them to the female, though this always seemed to happen in the middle of tree.
I assume the cold winter was to blame, but the heathland provided little of interest this year with no stonechats to be seen at all. Rather disappointing - love seeing these posers.

The woods held another target though, and I found myself nestled into the low-lying foliage on a valley slope, watching a wood warbler sing away in the canopy above. It was mostly high up, but after watching it for a while, I had spotted that as a part of its flight around its territory, it dropped down much lower, and it was here that I stood close by and hoped.

With gathering clouds and failing light time was against me, but just as I started to think my luck was out, down it came and I bagged a few very close shots. What a bright little bird it is and such a distinctive call.

Berry Head Revisited

Not quite Brideshead, but in sunshine this time and once more, the peregrines performed brilliantly. We had views of one perched for towards an hour, in bright sunshine against a glorious blue sea backdrop. However, we didn't have it all our way as we found out when reviewing the shots. The heat haze from the warm cliff face affected the focusing of the cameras and both of us suffered with very soft images in general, which was annoying, though we took that many shots, there were some good ones amongst the bad. Still, worth considering in the future if it's a hot day and things look clear through the viewfinder.

Recognising the call, I dragged Ian away from the falcon and over to a patch of bushes where a cirl bunting sat, singing away in the sunshine. I know there are supposedly better places to see these elusive birds, but this place never lets me down and this year was no exception. We watched it sing and also peck and eat the new leaves on the bushes, occasionally launching skywards to catch an insect buzzing around too close by.

We left later on when the peregrines had disappeared off hunting again, but by then we were both tired and thinking about a pub meal and some beer (well, I was anyway!).

South West Trip: Day One & Two (Devon)

Devon is a part of the world I'd seriously consider retiring to. I've spent many a happy holiday down there as a child and now as a grown up, it has become just as enjoyable as a spot for brilliant bird photography opportunities. This year though, Mum's recovery from her illness last summer has meant she was unable to go along, and I offered a friend the chance to come down to see and experience what the area around Teignmouth has to offer.

Exminster Marshes

We met up here on the Saturday morning, but the weather was against us, being cold and wet at times. This wasn't good for seeing our target bird (hobby) as the bigger insects would not be flying around. Driving round to the car park nearer the canal, we found dozens of martins, swifts and swallows hunting and the highlight for me was a distant garganey. The cold conditions eventually won out and we retreated to the Swan's Nest pub for a bite to eat.

Dawlish Warren

Had the weather been better and Ian's back less painful to him, we would have made the walk to the hide, but as it was, we were restricted to staying within the main area of the reserve, though that didn't mean we saw nothing.

On the pool were little grebe chicks and ducklings, plus swallows taking breaks from their acrobatic flights on the posts in the centre of the water. A heron soon moved away when it caught sight of us, and the usual Canada geese squabbled noisily as they munched on the fresh green grass. Within the woods, I managed to catch sight of the spotted flycatcher reported to be about, though only momentarily and certainly not long enough for a shot. And as usual, by the smaller pond near the dunes, a pair of whitethroats sang and flitted between bramble patches.

Day two: Berry Head

Having had no joy at the first two spots for photography, I banked on going to Berry Head. Upon arrival, we hiked up to the lighthouse area and after speaking to a local, heard that the peregrines were still around. And within minutes of searching the cliff face for it, I clocked one landing on the edge of the quarry face, close to the top. A quick scoot along the wall at the top yielded much closer views and Ian trudged over slowly to take advantage of the views.

Certainly changed our fortunes seeing this bird, as it preened and shot off for occasional sorties, returning to the same perch on the cliff, presumably because it was sheltered from the strong and rather chilly breeze. While I missed the actual kill, I did see one of the birds plucking and tearing up a catch later on which was compelling if not somewhat gruesome viewing.

I was also rewarded with a momentary glimpse of a cirl bunting near the new café and hide, though with the greyed skies, the pictures weren't anything special. Better than nowt though!

And I also saw a cuckoo on the slopes, but that stayed well away from me, alas.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Hoopoe and Nightingale

And so ends another Bank Holiday of adventure, fortune and unpredictable weather. I need another few days off to recover! Let's start with the weather as it dictated the plan of the 3 days. Saturday and Sunday were supposed to be wet, so I opted to save any trips further afield until the Monday, when it was promised to be drier.

Brandon Marsh:

Hides. With rain forecast I headed to a reserve with hides and hence shelter from the elements. I'd also read that cuckoos had been heard around the site, so that would be a welcome sound to the start of Spring. Also of note was a whinchat seen near the car park. Needless to say when I got there, scanning the marsh and area near the car park revealed nowt but a few jackdaws, sedge warblers, various tits and a few scampering bunnies.

Teal Pool hide was first target as the sun wouldn't be in my face until later and there were supposed to be some black-tailed godwits around. There were, but on the other side. Still, a little ringed plover tap-danced over and gave great views for a change.

Enroute to the Carlton Hide I heard the first cuckoo of the year and from the hide window, I was chuffed to see one land in the dead tree, although it was a tad far for anything other than a record shot. More pleasing, although also very distant was the whinchat, hopping about the tops of the brambles behind the tree.

Would be nice if that stayed around. Unlikely though!
Aside from that, a heron entertained us catching tiddlers, as did a little grebe, which didn't seem impressed with amount of weed in the water. I also glimpsed a sprawk and seconds later the first hobby of the year. No chance for a shot though! And it should be also noted that I didn't see a single drop of rain!

Clayhanger Marsh:

Having seen the photos by Chris Cook on Bird Guides, I decided on Sunday morning to head over to Walsall, and locate the hoopoe been seen near the marshes. Worcester Birding's map combined with a bit of research on Google Earth made finding the spot easy enough, and I was soon walking around scanning the area with 2 other birders. I almost called out to say I'd found it, when I realised it was just a female mallard, but then looking beyond that, realised I had spotted it, and we gathered nearby to watch it.

I've seen one before but from a coach window when going to the airport on Lanzarote, so this was great to see locally. Quite a restless bird generally, as it would poke about an area for a few mins, then fly elsewhere, leaving everyone desperately trying to follow its flight path. As such it was tricky to get anywhere near it, and all shots of it are cropped a fair bit. Despite it being May, the cold eventually persuaded me to head elsewhere and I aimed for Upton Warren.

Upton Warren:
Highlights of my hours spent camped (freezing) in the Water Rail hide were the numerous martins and swallows swooping by, taking insects from the water surface, a very brief appearance by a kingfisher and a bit of a rarity of an Arctic tern, which posed next to a common one, to show the difference in shape very well, to a novice like me.

Paxton Pits:
Seeing the sunshine on Monday morning tempted me out of my bed and into the car for a trip east, to Paxton Pits, a site famous for views of the nightingale, a bird I've not seen before. Using advice from Rob and Dave, I tried the first spot near the car park and soon glimpsed the first bird. It's call lead me straight to it, but it was mostly obscured by leaves and flew off just as I was lining the camera up. Waiting for half an hour here yielded no more views, but succeeded in getting me drenched by two heavy downpours. And as the third one approached, I thought I'd move into the reserve to see if my luck would change.

It did. As I trudged along the path, a couple beckoned me over to point out a nightingale, sat out on a branch in the open, singing away. Fantastic! First clear views of one and close enough for reasonable shots too.

Needless to say I stood and took a bag full of shots, and was pleased to see it come back to the same perch after it had left for a few moments. Lovely song and a lovely looking bird, which its big dark eyes, and reddish brown tail feathers, which showed well when it was blown off the perch by a sudden gust.

The wind was really blowing by now and despite me wearing wind-proof fleeces, I started to get a bit of a chill, and opted to head further east in hope of finding some stone curlews.

Max had kindly given me details of a less known location for these elusive birds, but when I arrived, the heavens had opened and the car was battered by a hail storm. Time for a sarnie! Sat there munching away, I was soon joined by a chap in a 4x4, who pulled alongside with his window down. Ominous...

He then explained that although his actions, and those of fellow wardens would be seen as very unpopular, they wanted to discourage birders from viewing the area as the breeding birds were being affected by humans walking the perimeter. As such, signs warning of no parking or waiting, fences and double yellow lines were all around. I had seen a curlew by now, but hadn't had the chance for a picture, and given the information, I thought I'd better move on. The birds' welfare always comes before my chance of a shot, especially when they're red listed like stone curlews. I'll just have to wait for one to show up elsewhere, and hope I can get a shot then.

I popped into Weeting Heath and Lakenheath Fen again, given that I was in the area, but only saw one stone curlew in the distance (again) and the RSPB place was like a wind-tunnel, and little was about.

With my eyes dried out from the gales I decided to head home, which proved to be a wise move, judging by the weather I drove through!