Sunday 19 February 2012

Bramblings, Firecrest and More Bramblings

Rain. We've not had much of it lately. I know this because I'm British, and we love to moan about the weather. Normally it's because of the rain, not a lack of it, but a dry summer is threatening droughts now, normally at a time of year when we're wondering how much a bag of sand really costs. But on Friday, the prospect of rain on Saturday allowed me a rare idea of a lie in, and it was duely taken, though only until about 9am, when the other nagging idea of washing the car got the better of me. 

A couple of hours later I'd got the car washed, and seen it get filthy again on the drive back up the road home (in the rain), got soaked putting bird seed out and cursed at one of the sunflower seed feeders breaking as I put it back up full... and was about to head back to a garden centre to get a new one when I saw a shard of sunlight. A quick check of the skies showed a breaking up of the clouds, and I was suddenly wondering where to go, at such late notice. 

Lickey Hills. Not far away and I can usually take pics from the car. Whilst tootling up the hills, I recalled a report about bramblings, and promptly headed to the site. What luck, as I parked up, the flock was there, feeding on the ground, amongst the leaf litter. 

I love bramblings, as they initially appear (to me) as chaffies, but a second glance reveals their oranges and blacks... and brings a smile to my face. 

The setting sun behind me didn't, nor did the legions of dog walkers in the area, but I managed a few more shots of them, before they scattered to the canopy when yet another hound came bounding through. There were probably a dozen or so, amongst the flock of chaffinches, and they seemed less flighty than their resident companions. 

Sunday was supposed to be brighter, and it was certainly that, at 7am when I threw open the curtains to see a blanket of snow over everything. After scraping the car and eventually finding my wellies, I was on the road for a tiny target, one I've not seen for ages. A firecrest, reported in a small copse near Penn. All I can say about the drive there is this - anyone who has to drive through that area daily deserves a knighthood for patience. Lights, lights and more lights. Always on red. Why there are speed cameras is beyond me, unless it's to catch someone attempting to end it all by driving into one of the red lights at speed... 

Anyway, I parked up, wandered down the road and squelched through the mud to the trees and was rather pleased to see 3 people already on the bird. It was fairly high up in the trees, and trying to get the tripod and camera round in time to get a shot was hard enough, without all the twigs in the way. Lots of shots taken, at best, record shots achieved. 

After about an hour, I was left to it, as the others had other places to see and after a further couple of hours I was beginning to think they had the right idea. Then, I spotted the flock of long-tailed tits that the firecrest had been following, and while I couldn't see it, I started tracking a goldcrest and started trying to get a shot of that. It was then that I clocked something behind it. 

Low down and slightly darker green in colour, a quick glance through my bins and I spotted the eye stripe. Oh yes. Trying to get a shot, now that was another matter - they never seem to stop. Branches, air-shots, I was building a collection of such shots until the firecrest flew even lower, and to my right to the hedge. I couldn't believe my luck. 

And it stayed still, for a second or so - maybe 15 feet away? 

Didn't last and it zipped up and over my head, up into the trees again. I chased, nearly fell over in the mud and watched as it bounced higher into the branches again. I didn't see it again. And with my toes going numb in my wellies, I knew it was time to call it a day. 

Except it was too early to end it completely, so I headed back to the bramblings, and despite it being a highway for dog-emptiers, walkers, bikers and later on, miniature horse-riding schools, I stuck it out, and eventually got a few more of this colourful winter visitor.  

Definitely worth the detour before home! I'll be adding more of all the above to my Flickr site soon...

Monday 13 February 2012

Risking Frostbite For Shorties And A Local Waxwing

I've avoided going to see the short-eared owls of late, for several reasons - too many people, too many similar photographs (from me) and also wanting to see other birds. But with snow on the ground, I thought it might be worth another go, for some different-looking images of them. I had also seen reports from another site in Leicestershire, so thought I'd try there first. 

As I crossed the county border into Leicestershire, the car's outside temperature sensor was reading -10C, and it only got lower from there on. By the time I reached the lane near Hallaton, it was -14C, and the road was actually a track, covered in 6 inches of snow. With heavy fog surrounding me too, and the "road" being steep in places, I chose to abandon the first idea, and head south to Northants, to the usual spot. Maybe it'd be better there? 

It wasn't. If anything, it was worse. The snow was deeper and the fog thicker, and it was -16C. After driving for 90 mins, I was in need of a toilet break, but couldn't open the car door from the inside! Had to put the window down and pull it open using the outside handle! The front of the car looked like it had been sprayed with ice! After adding some colour to the snow, I drove further down the track to find I wasn't the first person there! 

With the fog preventing me from seeing the field where the owls hunt, I stupidly chose to drive closer, and bump, bump, thump, quickly told me it was a very bad idea. I was stuck. The back wheels were in a hole and the front not gripping. What a prize pillock. I managed, with a lot of digging and scraping (hands only), and the use of some paper in the boot, to get the car moved by about a foot, but it was not going further. Then out of the fog wandered a familiar, if not rather frosted face. Carl. 

He greeted me with the kind words of "You tit, are you stuck?" but then kindly came over to help push. Sadly even he couldn't help move the car more than a yard. Thankfully, out of the fog appeared a couple, sensibly walking. The chap came over and moments later, after a lot of revving and spinning, the car was back on the track and safe. To say I was thankful was an understatement. 

After about an hour, both Tony and Ian had arrived and we were chatting away, keeping a look out for any movement in the mist, and hoping it would lift. As it started to, Carl spotted an owl in the hedge nearby, but the sound of walking over the snow spooked it further off, where it landed and revealed a gathering of birds! As the fog cleared, we counted 10 owls sat in the hedge, which for a bird that is generally so aggressive to one another when hunting, seemed rather unusual. But perhaps there is warmth in numbers, so needs must. 

By lunchtime, Bob had also arrived, along with a few others, and we were stood round, hoping the owls might stir, and do something other than occasionally preen or sleep. Problem was, as the fog had gone, the sun was hitting the snow and produced a horrid glare and haze, meaning focusing was a nightmare. 

One by one, the owls took flight, mostly up and over the hedge, but they then seemed to favour the fields well away from us. Maybe the ice was thinner there. We caught up with a couple though, which favoured the area near us, as the edges of the cropped fields were broken up with taller plants and I think the owls could reach their prey through it.  

One owl flew past us with a half-eaten vole hanging from its talons, proving that they could still catch food, despite the conditions.  

As soon as the sun sank behind the hill, my word did it get cold. My fingers were numb in seconds, and we chose to head back to the cars, to see if we could get out. Most folks had gone by now, though Ian was sensibly sat in the warmth of his car. One lad had trouble leaving as the handbrake on his car froze on! Our problems weren't over though. On the way out, there's a steep hill, and it was covered in ice. 

Bob led the way, but at the steepest part, some walkers got in his way and he had to slow. Fatal. Traction lost, he started to slide uncontrollably backwards towards me! Engaging reverse, so Ian behind could see the problem, we slithered and reversed back to the bottom again. 

Ian opted to turn around and head out the other way, but I was quietly confident my car had enough grip to get out. Taking the lead, I tried again, and with no walkers to hinder me, 2nd gear got me up and out. Not so for poor Bob, who I saw in my mirrors, slow and slide back again. So infuriating. 

Ian had made it out, and I called Bob to ask what he was going to do. He had an offer from a 4x4 driver of a tow, but he tried again, and in 3rd gear managed to get up and out. Thank goodness! 

Took me the rest of the evening to thaw out, and I've ruined my sprained wrist again, with the efforts to free the car. Was almost worth it though, as I got a few half decent images, though nothing special. 

Sunday started with me sorting some images out for the Worcs Trust 2013 Calendar competition, which was an effort as I couldn't recall many productive trips last year. Thankfully, I scoured the hard drives and found some trips to Upton Warren, and also Knowles Coppice (Wyre Forest) which gave me enough shots for an attempt at any rate. 

Back from Smite, after dropping off the envelope, I checked my phone and saw a text from Birding Today, saying a waxwing was down the road from my Dad's house. A phone call and quick drive later, and we were both looking at it, in a berry tree beside one of the roads. Causing a lot of curtain-twitching and drivers slowing down to ask, it was a mini-ripple of bemusement for the local residents.  

Unfortunately, the light was very flat and with no sun or blue skies to bring out the colours of this beautiful migrant, I had to use all my Photoshop skills to get any sort of image from the shots taken. Came out ok, actually in the end, and given the lack of these birds here this winter, any shot taken is worthwhile.  

I only stayed for perhaps an hour, as I needed to get back and ready to go out, and the clouds certainly weren't looking like they would part, any time soon. Great to see one of these birds locally though, and also good to put some faces to some of the names I see reporting birds in that area too.

Monday 6 February 2012

Little Owls And Staying Local

After a week of mainly sunny days, it wasn't a huge surprise to me that the weekend's forecast was for cloud, snow and then possibly a moment of sunshine late Sunday afternoon. With the snow in mind, I really wanted to head over to Northants for the SEOs, but alas, we are in England and as soon as a single flake of snow falls from the sky, it's gridlock everywhere, and you have to sleep in your car. 

As such, I thought I'd try local instead, and before heading down the M42, I called in to see if Little Grump was out in its tree. One of them was, sat on a branch on the side of the tree, out in the open. I had time to get the camera ready and window down, before pulling the car up on the verge. Two shots, and it looked at me, turned tail and flew off to the stump in the field. Looking through the hedge, I could see both on the stump, so got out, and pointed the bazooka at them, handheld. Given the light and shutter speed, and my still painful wrist, I was amazed the shot came out as well as it did. 

When the owls flew further off, into the trees at the back of the field, I decided to head off and found myself stood beside the river, at the back of the Bittern Hide at the Moors (Upton Warren), scanning the trees for the lesser spotted woodpecker. No sign of it, though I did see plenty of thrushes (song, fieldfare and redwing), plus goldcrest, a couple of wrens, a buzzard, a great spotted woodpecker and at least one male blackcap, feeding amongst the ivy. After about half an hour, I was joined by Trevor Jones, who helped with the search. We also had a good chat about trips north of the border - I must get my act together with a winter trip to Scotland one day... 

With the feeling in my toes starting to disappear, I headed to the Bittern Hide, to try for some shots of the birds around the feeders. It was actually colder in the hide, as its raised position meant it was catching the light breeze, which went right through me as I sat peering out of the windows. The feeders were busy, with reed buntings, greenfinches, blue, great and long-tailed tits, dunnocks and occasionally the great spotted woodpecker swooped in for a go on the fat balls. My interest though, was mainly on the small numbers of bullfinches. Despite the gloom, the males glowed. Would have been nicer to get a shot with a cleaner backdrop, but they're so vibrant they tend to distract you from looking elsewhere on the image. 

Also around, though providing only brief glimpses were common snipes and water rails. They seemed to appear from the reedbed, scurry across the frozen pool and head towards the free-flowing water of the stream. I guess they had a prayer of being able to find some food there! 

By now I had been joined by Bob and Chris, who were also interested in the feeder visitors, and provided some good conversation to take our minds off how cold it was. Chris kept warm by grabbing at his camera as it tried to leap out of the hide window... and Bob had his hand-warmer with him. I should get one - they're so erm, handy! 

Eventually though, with the snow coming down, I yearned for the warmth of the car, and left them to it. Defrosting in the car, I felt it was too early to be heading home, so again, diverted to see the owls. This time, only one was visible, and was perched as close to the trunk of the tree as it could, trying to be out of the wind and driving snow. Didn't look too happy, but when do they ever?
It kept looking around as if to work out if anywhere else was more sheltered, and moved eventually, when it had snow settling on its head. A quick ruffle of its feathers, to shake off the snow, and that was about as entertaining as it got. I headed home to warm up properly. 

Sunday was cloudy. Snow on the ground, but after the night before, when it took me 40 mins to cover 2 miles in the car (so much for B'ham Council's boasts about being ready for the snow), I wasn't keen on going out. But it was starting to thaw, and I convinced myself that going to the owls wouldn't be that bad. It wasn't, though the traction-control light flashed a few times on the way there, and the country roads were still covered and untreated. 

Looking up at the tree, I realised the owls were sat near each other in the branches. Careful parking on the verge allowed me to get a shot of them together, albeit with one somewhat blurred in the background. 

With nothing else to do, and it being so quiet I chose to stay and watch for a while. They occasionally moved when people wandered by, which was good, as they have a habit of sitting still for hours. 

This allowed for some shots of them looking somewhat startled at the people, looking for safer places to perch and best of all, for a few seconds, both sat very close to each other on the same branch. 

When they both flew away, one to a tree down the road and the other to an obscured branch, I thought I ought to head back. But I had time on my side. No need to move was there? 

Well, one incident with a pair of lads in a new Mini, when their car lost traction and for a good 5 seconds looked to be on a collision course with my car, only to grip at the very last second and miss by less than an inch, made me reconsider, and I chose to head home! 

The sun popped its head out for a short while, so I set up in the garden. I was very pleased to see a redpoll on the nyger seed feeder, though it disappeared when I went outside. However, the local pair of goldcrests were busy mooching through the branches of the pine tree, and kindly paused for a moment to allow for an easier shot or two. 

Then I had one of those magic moments - I had been inside the conservatory for a telephone call, and just got back outside to my camera when I looked up, and at the end of the garden, looking directly at me from behind an apple tree was a fox. Looked in good nick too. 

Neither of us moved for a second, until the voice in my head shouted "Get a photo you moron!" and the movement of my arm and head towards the camera made the fox vanish into the shadows behind. No picture, but a moment to treasure. Perhaps I should spend more time in the garden - I wonder what I'm missing!