Wednesday 25 April 2012

Wyre Adders

One of my goals this year was to track down some adders, as I've not seen one since Dad spotted one slithering along a hillside near Swanage, when I was a child. I've seen plenty of grass snakes, but not managed to glimpse the more elusive adder at all to date. 

Reading Jason's blog (Shenstone Birder) I noticed he'd seen one in the Wyre Forest, and while I had looked there for them before, I set out on Saturday morning with some renewed optimism of finding one. 

The problem was, I still wasn't completely sure where I needed to go, so ended up going for a stroll through the woods, where I heard the familiar teasing call of a blackcap. I say teasing, as I rarely get any shots of them. I've got a pair nesting near my back garden, but so far have only managed a few shots of the female. Here though, there were two males, being chased / followed around the trees by a pair of long-tailed tits. I waited and hoped. 

After a few shots of branches and twigs, I managed a shot, and while it's not the best effort, it's better than nowt! 

Walking back towards the main path, I was nearly deafened by a pair of wrens, seemingly duelling over songs. Didn't take long to spot them, as they like to choose elevated perches to belt out their songs from, and despite the gloomy light, I took a few shots of the little characters. 

You've probably noticed by now that I've not mentioned finding any adders. Well, I hadn't. But then I had a stroke of luck. Walking near me, was a chap with a radio aerial, and he seemed to be looking around on the ground for things. I thought I'd be cheeky and ask what he was up to. Just then, I spotted a familiar face approaching him. Sylvia Sheldon, who was featured on Springwatch (I think) when she was awarded some sort of geek award by Chris Packham. I knew I had a chance of seeing one with her around! 

Asking if I could tag along while they tracked down tagged snakes, they were quite happy for me to do so, which was fab. Instead of a needle in a haystack, I now had a realistic chance of seeing one, and maybe getting a shot. 

Even with the tags on, which are paid for by public donations by the way, they're difficult to track down, as the snakes like to hide, go underground and sadly the tags come off. They're only taped on - Sylvia doesn't like the idea of using super-glue, in case it harms the snake. Quite right too. 

The first female we tracked, was under a pile of bracken, so no sighting there. The second also remained hidden from view. I was beginning to think I had perhaps cursed the mission. Then Sylvia offered to show me one where she knew it'd be, and as the sun had popped out for a bit, she reckoned it would be in its favourite sun-bathing site. It was. Though it took some time for me to spot it, they're so well camouflaged. 

Tiny, strikingly marked and fascinating creatures. But very sensitive to any noise or movement, and my clumsy (excited) approach meant it vanished before I could get a picture. We then tried a couple of other sites, but each time, the snake would be partially hidden or zipped off, when we got too close. Even so, just having seen one I was buzzing. 

With their tracking exercise complete, Sylvia and her colleague left me to it, and I knew it would be a case of being patient. If the sun came back out, chances are, so would the adders. Setting up near where I'd seen the male earlier, I crouched and hoped. A flick of a tongue and out it slithered from the leaf litter, cautious and very slowly, it moved out of the shadows and into view. 

I'd abandoned the idea of using my big lens, and was using the 50D and 100-400mm, as it's far more manoeuvrable, and has a closer focusing distance too. The markings and colours of the adders are striking - when you see one up close, it really is a beautiful animal, if you can use that term for a creature feared by some. I guess if you trod on one, or tried to pick it up or interfered with it, you might be at risk, but just observing from a sensible distance and being as still as possible, was so rewarding. Really made my day seeing them. 

The photos I got were all of a male. The females were larger and darker coloured, making them even more difficult to spot. I was surprised that they can live for 30 years too - seems a lot for such a small snake. 

With the current monsoon-like weather, I doubt I'll be trying again soon, and it's probably best to wait for warmer months anyway, to have more of a chance of seeing them. 

I know this is a Birding Blog, but I love to photo all manner of wildlife, and these adders have really whet my appetite for more.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Denbighshire Delights

To get up or not to get up, that was the question. In doing so (really early) I would surely be able to get up to Denbighshire in North Wales to see the black grouse lekking - a species I've not seen before. And with the weather promising to be decent, surely I'd make the effort? 

Well, no. After a few early starts for work in the week, the idea of getting up that early on a weekend fell on sleepy ears, and so, after a brief lie in, I arrived in North Wales at about 10am, to find Stuart's car parked up beside the road. I just knew he'd got up early and a phone call later confirmed it. They'd been there for 5:30am (him, Ken and John) and seen about 3 hours of wonderful lekking, with 7 black grouse. The light hadn't been great, but I wished I'd made the effort and wondered if I'd regret it. 

Last year, a Dartford Warbler found photographer-fame when it took up residence in the same area, and it's survived a year there. A bit of waiting and watching and second-guessing where it'd land next resulted in a few more decent shots of this bird, before it zipped off across the moors and out of sight. 

Back at the cars, I spotted a pair of black grouse over a valley, wandering along the steep slopes. Too far for even a record shot, but good to see (a first for me - I don't do "ticks" as the word reminds me of some horrid insects picked up on Uist one year - ewww). At this point, the lads headed back towards England, leaving me to search the moors for grouse on my own. I didn't hold much hope, especially after returning to the valley where the pair had been seen, to find they'd "clucked" off. 

Whilst munching on my sarnies, I noticed a pair of stonechats fluttering down from their lofty perches, to pick up insects from beside the road, so I put down the window, and waited. Had to do a bit of contortion to get the shots - sitting almost on the dashboard to get one, but I love these birds, so was worth the discomfort. 

Clouds started to gather over the tops of the hills, and I thought I'd drive around a bit in hope of spotting something. After an hour, all I'd seen were pipits and a few more stonechats. I was about to head home when I decided the road deserved another go, and as the hail began to fall, I spotted a black neck poking up above the heather. Memories of spotting red grouse from Scotland came back, and I quickly parked up nearby. 

I could also see (through the awful weather) another bird further off too, but that seemed to be heading away, until suddenly, it took off, and flew towards me, over the road and landed about 80 yards away, on a small lump of grass. To see one out in the open and relatively close was good enough for me, but when it then started to perform, I couldn't believe it. 

Making all the sounds, ruffling feathers, posturing and calling out - it was a sight for sore eyes. 

The other one, whose head I'd seen poking out the undergrowth just watched, and stayed out of sight. After about 20 mins, the lekking ceased and the bird flew off, down over the hill and away from me. By now though, the hail had eased and it was merely snowing!! The temperature had dropped from about 8 down to 3 Celcius in maybe an hour, and it was really horrid. The grouse nearby, sat up and came out of cover in the worst of the weather, before attempting to call and posture itself; almost as if practising. 

In the distance, I spotted a bird quartering the moors and a quick look through my bins revealed a hen harrier. Fantastic. Shame the weather was so dire, but a record shot bagged as it crossed the road in front of me. 

Typically, as soon as the weather threatened to improve, the grouse then flew off! 

I had wanted to spend Sunday locally, and so the day started with that in mind. Near Sambourne, I had hoped to catch up with a cuckoo heard there, but no sign of it. Instead I found a lovely kestrel hunting, and then later, a not so lovely traffic jam near a Car Boot Sale. 

Further on, near Feckenham, the sound of a chiffchaff beside the road prompted another stop off, and I managed some shots of it as it sang from the hedgerow. 

I had hoped to explore Shenstone, but upon arrival in the area, I had noticed my steering was a bit weird, and putting down the window I could hear a frap-frap-frap sound. Parking up revealed the problem - a flat, and so it was the end of the day. Spare wheel on, and the rest of the day spent in the tyre centre. 

Such is life!

Monday 9 April 2012

Garden Gold

As I type this, I really ought to be outside working on my garden pond, but the rain is enough of an excuse to be inside. Yesterday though, while drizzle occasionally fell, I was knee deep in mud and clay, but wisely, had my camera gear nearby. 

I get a reasonable array of birds in the garden, and most of my shots of goldcrests are from here. However, almost all are from the fir tree, so when I spotted the local pair chasing one another around the shrubs, I grabbed the camera and followed. 

As usual, they didn't stop for long, though as I have seen before, they don't take much notice of you either allowing very close views, and I had to duck twice when their chase took them right at me! 

Made a good change to see them out of the fir tree, and I grabbed an old stick as a perch, put it into the shrubs and hoped they might come out into the open more to land on it. 

Paid off, with a few shots of one of the tiny characters perching on it, before diving back into the bushes. 

After a few frantic moments, the pair seemed to calm down, and vanished back into the shadow of the fir tree, to feed once more. Unfortunately that meant I had to head back to the hole, and carry on with my task. Made for an entertaining distraction though!

Ouzels, Falcons And Sausages?

Scanning the various reports during the week, I noted that a pair of ring ouzels had been seen daily up on Clee Hill, on the Titterstone side. This was where I had seen some before, so fancied my chances of adding photos to my collection with another trip. Unfortunately, on the Saturday morning, as I drove towards the hill I could see it shrouded in cloud so knew it wouldn't be welcoming. 

I was right, and glad I'd put on my thermal trousers and remembered my woolly hat. The hill was generally quiet, though there were a couple of hardy birders and photographers looking around the derelict buildings, and as such, locating the bird was made easier. They were initially feeding on the same steep slopes as the desert wheatear had favoured, which made it difficult to get any sort of shot, plus they were flighty and as soon as they caught sight of you approaching, even if you were really careful, they flew off. The wheatears weren't so bad, and I managed some very close shots, although hardly colourful in the conditions. 

As the hills are so undulating, it was possible to get to within a few metres though, and wait for the birds to move into sight, and this was the tactic which seemed to yield the best success during that drizzly morning. I got some very close views of the female as she fed from the rain-soaked grassy slopes, but the light was pretty dire. 

Later, the male and female favoured the buildings themselves, and by slowly creeping closer, I managed some half decent shots, with the male being the one I wanted most, due to the better markings. 

He liked to watch over the female when she was searching for food, and called out to her frequently, which gave his location away, even when he was tucked into hidden corners. 

With fading light (plus a group of American idiots who found it funny to chase off the birds), I decided to call it a day, but not before a moment of hilarity. Stood chatting to a local tog, a raven flew overhead, and it dropped something from its beak, narrowly missing us both. A string of sausages!! I couldn't stop laughing. I wonder where it got them from? Someone missing part of a BBQ maybe! 

Hardly BBQ weather, though the Sunday was much better, and being keen to get some brighter shots, I returned to the hill once more. This time, both Ken and Stu were present, interested in both the ouzels and the small number of wheatears around. As before the ouzels were flighty and I ended up following them around the hillside, away from the others. Here, whilst watching the pair feed below, I got chatting to another local, who let it slip where he'd seen some peregrines, only a short drive away. 

With some brighter pictures of the ouzels in the bag, I decided to pack up and head off to this new site and hope. Upon arrival, there was no sign of the birds, but within seconds of me sending a text to the lads reporting the lack of activity, I heard something whoosh past, a bit like the sound a jet makes before you hear the engines, but this was no jet - it was a peregrine falcon, and it promptly shot upwards to start chasing another peregrine around the blue skies. 

Just wonderful. Calming for a second, I made sure I'd got the right settings, and switched to the expanded focus point, as the birds fly rather quickly when they need to, making keeping them in the shot a tad difficult. But seeing them fly around overhead was fabulous. Another text, and about 20 mins later, I was joined by Ken and Stu. 

Another lull in the action, tempted Ken to wonder off to try to photo a wheatear nearby and left me to try to describe the sound the bird had made when it passed me earlier. Just as I'd given up with my poor description, it did it again. Same whooshing sound, speed of it coming past and the sight of it as it hurtled upwards after the other bird - Stu said it was one of the best wildlife moments he'd ever had. 

No time to dwell in the moment, as the falcons put on a display over head again, chasing one another, occasionally landing, calling out and off chasing again. 

With them being so low down, we were able to get some good shots, when we managed to get the bird in the frame, of course. Easier said than done. 

And with the warmth of the sun, heat haze became a problem, as it had when Ian and I had tried to get shots of the same species down in Devon. I managed a few good shots despite this, and by the time the birds left once more, we had all filled our cards with shots of this awesome hunter. 

 I drove back to look for the ouzels once more, but by that time, the dog walkers and picnickers had arrived and the pair were very difficult to follow. I did catch a decent view (as did Pam & co) in some of the buildings, but a dog walker decided to play ball with his mutt in the same area, and scared the birds off. 

Typical. I knew it was time to leave before I lost my rag with someone. A productive weekend though, and perhaps something to keep tabs on over the summer.