Sunday 29 January 2012

Crossbills At Last

After working some strange shifts down in London during the week, I could quite happily have spent the weekend catching up on sleep, but I'd seen the forecast, and Saturday promised sunshine and calm conditions. Perfect for short-eared owls. Except I wanted something else. And the lack of wind would mean tree-tops wouldn't be swaying quite as much as they had been of late. 

I'd set my alarm for 8am, but was wide awake at 6, and opted to get up half an hour later. Just before 9am, I parked up at the upper car park at Eymore Wood, near Trimpley, to hopefully catch a sighting of some common crossbills. I've seen them before, at the same place, but always right at the top of the trees, and usually in bright light, making them into silhouettes. It was cold, so I chose to stay in my car, and both watch and listen for the birds. 

I'd been the week before, when huge flocks of siskins, redpolls and goldfinches feasted on the cones on the trees. Aside from small bands of tits, comprising of blue, great, coal and marsh varieties, there was little else around. A lone buzzard swooped occasionally into the trees down the road, and after 3 hours or so, I was beginning to think it wasn't to be. 

Then a small flock - five of them circled overhead, calling loudly out. I craned my neck out of the window and was panic struck as one brightly coloured male landed at the top of a larch tree. Grabbing the camera, I lined up and took a couple of shots. Then I spotted the light meter and realised, as usual, the mode on the camera had been knocked from Manual to something else, and my shots were wasted. 

Why on earth Canon can't make a camera that allows a mode to be locked is beyond me, but yet again, I'd failed to remember to check, and a car parking up beneath the tree, spooked the bird. Fortunately, the flock only flew away briefly and returned within minutes to allow for another go. Again though, the birds were right at the top of a tree, and I only bagged record shots. 

Then Pam and family arrived, which was a welcome sight - we used to bump into each other frequently, so shared some banter and scanned the trees at the same time. Spotting a pair of crossbills (or canaries, as Pam joked) down the road, we scurried down to try again, and this time the birds were a bit closer, so better shots were to be had. 

The birds seem to use their twisted beaks to prise open the cones, and then poke their tongues in, to get the seed. They're certainly acrobatic birds, and balance on the thinnest of twigs to reach the cones. They also seem to eat the buds off trees, doing so on a poplar tree in the car park, which proved to be another challenge, to get a clear shot. 

By the end of the day, I had managed a few half-decent shots, and caught up with a bigger flock, near the top of the car park. They fed and then chased one another around the branches.  

While I'd not seen them as close as I would have liked, it had still been a good day, and at least I now have some shots of this woodland bird.  

Sunday's forecast was for cloud, so I had a bit of a lie in, before checking bird reports. I had planned to spend some of the day searching for the lesser spotted woodpecker at Upton Warren, but I had to fit in the hour from the conservatory first, doing the RSPB Bird Watch. 

During which, I read online, that a black redstart had been spotted near Hartlebury, on an industrial estate, so that was my first place to stop off at. 

No sign of the redstart (though it was seen later, after I left). There was, however, a berry-laden tree nearby, proving to be a real attraction for redwings and fieldfares. Ok, so the light was awful, but while I waited to see if the redstart would make an appearance, I took a few shots of these winter thrushes. 

Quite noisy for redwings, and they frequently squabbled, but there were enough berries for all, and they seemed to be enjoying their fill. 

Back at UW, the LSW proved to be a no-show, so I upped sticks and went home. Hopefully it'll stick around for next weekend.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

More Owls And A Worcs Tour

A new year but the same birds for me, at least for the start. I've been over to Northants for the short-eared owls twice now, though this last visit was interrupted prematurely when an ignorant rider from a local hunt decided to ride across the field where the owls roost, scaring most of them off for the afternoon. Brilliant. 

We still saw a few, but they remained generally distant, so I ended up processing images from the trip I made at the very start of the year. 

At one point, a pair chased each other towards us, and one came so close, I simply abandoned trying to angle the camera upwards, and settled for watching the bird fly right over-head. A fine sight, I have to say. 

Northants does seem to be a good county for birds of prey, with a quick tootle round before the owls yielding several near misses with buzzards, but a couple of half-decent shots of kestrels. 

Trouble with going over there, aside from the crowds (some of whom still don't realise that in order to get the owls close, you need to stay still and be quiet, and not chase the owls up and down the edge of the field) and the pillocks on horse-back, is that it is quite some distance to drive, and with the ever rising price of diesel, I'm really having to limit such trips. 

So on Sunday, I opted for a closer trip, to check out reserves that I've not been to before, using the Guide Book from Worcs Wildlife Trust. First stop, near Redditch centre was Ipsley Alders Marsh

With the sun shining, and frost on the ground, it looked promising as I parked up by the gate, grabbed my gear and trundled into the reserve. 

First sighting was of a grey heron, soaring in from over the trees, spiralling down and coming to a gentle stop on the posts, crossing the reserve in front of me. Peering out from the reserve map sign, which I was reading at the time, I took a couple of shots, before I think it spotted me, and took flight once more. It could also have been from the fact that the pool was actually an ice rink, so no fishing to had there! 

Wandering off around the perimeter, I mooched through some woods, where the usual suspects of blue and great tits flitted around, though the presence of several goldcrests was great to see. Too gloomy for shots, alas. The path then leads out across the marsh, which had it not have been frosty, would definitely have lived up to the billing of being a site for wellies. 

Dotted around the marsh are areas of brambles, and on one of these, sat a wren, chirping as I made my way carefully past, given the frost on the boardwalk, and the rather moist areas beneath. 

At the end of the wooden part, I made my way over to the far side of the small reserve only to discover that wellies were actually needed afterall, so I had no option but to turn back. The woods on the far side were more lively though, with a pair of noisy nuthatches being the stars. 

Back in the warmth of the car, I looked at the book again and opted for a spot called Humpy Meadow, out nearer to Worcester. A most strange field, covered in small humps, apparently made from the hundreds of ants nests across it. Green woodpeckers eat ants, so I had hoped to get a shot, but aside from the humps and bumps, there was nowt much else around. 

So, I chose to take a long route home, around some side roads hoping to see something interesting. On one wealthy person's drive, near a gated entrance, were lots of crab apples, attracting fieldfares and redwings. Typical, as I parked up, they scattered, and despite several instances when the birds looked like they might come back, passing traffic frightened them off once more. 

All I mustered was a shot of a feeding redwing along the verge from me, and distant shot of a fieldfare at the top of a tree, in an orchard across the road. 

I have to admit, at this point I was wondering how my friends were doing over in Northants. Perhaps I should have tried again? My luck seemed to be out, typified by not once but twice, having buzzards fly off from perches near the road, as I parked to get a shot. 

Then turning into yet another b-road delaying my journey home, I spotted one sat in a tree, with its back to me. "Please don't fly off" I muttered as I coasted the car to a standstill. It didn't. And with the late afternoon sunshine on it, I couldn't really have asked for a nicer shot. 

On closer inspection, there seems to be blood around its beak and talons, and bits of fur on the branch, so I suspect it had been feeding when I arrived, and couldn't be bothered to fly off. Suited me! 

Not that I need reminding of how pleasurable my hobby is, but a moment of magic like that, turned a day that seemed a tad disappointing, into one to remember.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

A Review Of 2011

We're already into 2012 and I've already been to see the owls, but first I promised a review of my favourite photographic moments of 2011. 


I saw some good stuff in January, catching up with short-eared owls and bramblings, but star of the show was the glossy ibis down on a small, shallow river at Hungerford. It was the first instance since getting a bigger lens, that I wish I'd brought along the 100-400mm, as the ibis was almost within touching distance.


Without doubt the short-eared owl, which was possibly the most photographed bird of the start of the year, was the highlight for me, and I almost missed it, being down the wrong end of the lane. It kindly waited though, and in soft, amber evening light, I captured my best perched shots to date.


Resisting the charms of the owls (and trying to save some pennies with the ever rising fuel costs) I stayed local and had a magical encounter with a young male sparrowhawk, which dropped into the feeding station at Whitacre Heath. Normally these birds tear through, causing chaos and leaving you cursing at not being given a chance of a shot. This time he stopped, perched up, took a brief look around and glared right down my lens, as I clicked away excitedly from the hide.


Another contender for most photographed bird now, when I finally made the effort to go to see the Dartford Warbler at a spot called World's End. I'm sure I've been before, or at least felt like it, when hiking over the hills of Somerset chasing these elusive and rather shy birds. Had to wait for a bit, but when it showed it was stunning. Such a proud singer too. Lovely.


At about this time of year, I tend to head west into mid-Wales, in search of early nesting migrants, but my usual location let me down. Fortunately I discovered the charms and rewards of Gilfach Farm, and not only bagged some fab shots of common redstarts, but also masses of full frame shots of pied flycatchers. A definite return is on the cards for 2012.


Sharing information is key in this game and having great friends who are willing to not only share, but help locate birds for you is even better. And so came the magic moment of June, when Stuart disclosed the location of a tawny owl to me, then met up with me and helped me find it too! Still took an absolute age to get a clear shot, but just to see one of these in daylight is such a treat.


Now this is difficult, as I visited both Shetland and the Scottish Highland this month. At the latter I saw ospreys, grouse and a gem of a long-eared owl, but if pushed, I'd have to say that the day trip to Mousa was arguably the best day out I've had in years. Great company, wonderful weather and scenery and wildlife to make your jaw drop. Ok, so the Shetlands kept some of its treasures away from my lens, but I did catch up with most, and stayed with a couple more.


Easy one this, though choosing between the birds and otters on Mull is pretty tricky. My last trip to Mull had been productive, but this time was far better, and minus the midge bites! I'd promised Dad that he'd surely see an eagle on Mull, and by the end of the first day he'd seen both white-tailed and golden varieties. From very early morning sorties in the vain hope of a close encounter with a hen harrier, to afternoon leisure drives, where we'd spot anything from stonechats to golden eagles near the road.


I could have included some more from Mull here, but that would mean missing out one of the slimiest, wettest yet most rewarding sessions on a beach in Norfolk, where I abandoned all sense, and trudged through deep mud to get closer to a stunning grey plover in summer plumage.


I didn't get out a great deal in the month, but one sunny day tempted me down the M40, to try for red kites. Proved to be a wise move when I stumbled upon a local feeding spot and was left smiling ear-to-ear when I got many shots of these distinctive birds of prey against a glorious blue sky.


Owls have been a bit of a theme this year, and so the last 2 entries for this blog post contain a couple of my favourite shots of short-eared owls, taken at a site in Northants. It has been rather hit and miss, though on a rare day off work, I managed a shot I'm very pleased with, with the owl flying right at me, and whenever I can find a suitable frame, will soon be adorning a wall in my house.


With the waxwings staying east and no bitterns at Upton Warren (yet), I failed miserably to resist seeing the shorties again. I guess I'll see them a few more times before the winter is out, though I am starting to want to photograph something else.
After 2011, this year really has its work cut out to be as entertaining. I'd best dig out that Thinking Cap Santa gave me recently - come up with some new ideas! 

Happy New Year folks!