Wednesday 30 May 2012

Elated At Elan

After the wettest April on record and several recent trips out nearly ending with frostbite, I was keen to get myself and Dad out of the house to enjoy some of the warm sunshine that had finally arrived in May. With all the travelling around the UK I do, I take for granted sightings of birds like the red kite so was quite surprised when I realised that Dad hadn't had any sort of decent views of one. 

With this in mind, I made plans for a trip into Wales. I had hoped to combine the trip with a stop off to see a cream-coloured courser that was quite appropriately being seen on a golf course on Bradnor Hill, but the day before we were going, it chose to depart and wasn't seen again. A little annoying, but I had half expected it to and it allowed me to focus on the main trip and not potentially spend most of it chasing a birdie around a green. Much like my normal golfing game! 

Having woken to glorious sunshine all week, Thursday morning was typically cloudy and I did wonder if I had managed to choose the only rubbish day of the week, but driving over the hills of Radnorshire brought us into the sunshine and it was cloudless when we parked up in Gilfach Farm. First target being pied flycatchers and redstarts. 

Didn't take long to see a pied flycatcher with a rather splendid male dropping down to feed on the free meal worms laid out. The female was also around, and took her share of the worms whenever the feeding area wasn't being emptied by a rather greedy female blackbird. As well as her, there were several blue and great tits around, a couple of nuthatches and higher up in the tree canopy, small flocks of siskins and redpolls fluttered by. 

Through the trees, down into the valley revealed occasional glimpses of red kites, out hunting in the morning sunshine. They look fantastic when you can look down at them below. Their calls were somewhat drowned out by the guttural cronking ravens nearby and the more spring-like cuckoo, from several individuals in the area. 

While standing in the courtyard is nice, it is also rather warm, so we opted to relocate down the hill in to the coolness of the Otter Hide. From here, we could see the nestboxes occupied by pied flycatchers and also a blue tit family. The female pied flycatcher seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the sun, so we helped ourselves to numerous shots as she sat still. 

A shrill call alerted me to the presence of a dipper on the stream - another first for Dad, though it didn't hang around long enough for any really decent shots. 

No sign of any otters though, nor of any redstarts, so we headed out of the farm and parked up on the roadside in the valley for lunch. A brief fly-by from a cuckoo had me scrambling for my kit (out of reach) but it never returned, and I drove Dad over to Gigrin for the 3pm show. 

As usual, I took a quick look around the farm and found a spotted flycatcher, but its face was obscured by a branch, so no pics. Dad was already intrigued by the kites that were circling, and was trying to get shots even before the feeding began. Not bothering with one of the expensive hides, we chose one in the middle area and waited for the farmer's tractor to roll out, and the beef to be shovelled on to the field. 

Now I've seen the spectacle several times, so know what to expect, but I know Dad was amazed at the sight of all the kites swooping down to feed. The size of the birds, their agility, their calls and sheer numbers is incredible really. 

I was supposed to be trying for shots of ravens but as usual was distracted. Initially by buzzards. 

But then by Leucistic red kites. Two of them, and they really stood out from the crowd. They appeared slightly smaller, and were subjected to mobbing from the others. 

One had those awful wing tags on, but luckily the other was clean, and it was fabulous to watch and photograph. They waited for the first wave of kites to feed, and then took what was left, before the younger generation arrived for the scraps. 

As usual, I had my 100-400mm lens with me, and it was so much easier to wield around for flight shots. 

After 45 mins or so, Dad's arms were feeling the effects of chasing kites around the blue skies, and we retired to the farm for an ice-lolly, and planned the next move. 

My target for the day had been whinchats, so we headed into the Elan Valley itself for a look. Dave Hutton had mentioned the Claerwan Valley as being a possible location for them and he was dead right. Took a bit of searching, but their calls gave them away and occasionally they'd perch up out of the grasses. 

Annoyingly, they kept their distance and the sun by now was in the wrong direction to get shots from the car easily. I tried down by the river, but my luck just wasn't in, and I only managed the sort of record shot I had before, on Long Mynd. It was late, we were both tired and opted to head home for a pint and pub meal. 

Dad had loved the day out, as had I, but I'd failed to get my target (properly), and wanted to try again. So, at ridiculous o'clock on Saturday morning, I was up, and by 7:30am, I was parking up at Gilfach again. I know, I wanted whinchats, but I also wanted to try for the cuckoos. Dad would never get up so early, so I was alone for the drive in, but had arranged to meet Dave for the day. He soon rolled up, but with no cuckoos even calling, we headed to the courtyard. 

 Unlike before, the pied flycatchers weren't coming down too often, and it was only the nuthatches providing interest, though Mrs Blackbird was still taking all the worms when she could! Down at the Otter Hide, the pied flycatchers were also proving harder to get, though a little patience was rewarded with the female perching up pretty close. 

I caught up with the male on the hillside, whilst listening out for cuckoos, which slowly came down along the valley to land on the trees nearby. Cuckoos are flighty though, and despite our best attempts, we couldn't creep close enough for anything decent, nor second-guess where they might choose to perch next. 

In chasing the cuckoos, I spotted a small bird nearby. A whinchat!! Dave was soon "on it" too, and we tried to get some images, but with my usual luck in play, the male remained partially hidden by shrubs, and flew off before we could get a clearer view. 

With the heat of the day increasing, I suggested relocating to Claerwan, in hope of catching some whinchats there but unlike Thursday which had been calm, it was now very breezy and all the birds I'd seen were now much further off, and not generally perching on the gorse. We spotted other birds like sand martins, a redstart, wheatears, more ravens and loads of pipits, but no luck with what we were after. 

Back to Gilfach, Dave switched to chasing insects and got some of the beautiful damoiselles he was after. I got sunburnt, waiting for a cuckoo to approach, which it failed to do. With the birds sheltering from the heat, Dave had had enough, and chose to head back home. But I wanted to spend the day in the area and decided to go for a proper drive around the Elan Valley. 

I actually managed to get some scenic shots of an overflowing dam, which I've been after for ages. It was nice to stand watching the water cascade over the stonework and be cooled by the spray coming off it. 

But the scene was popular, and I felt compelled to move on to let others park up to admire it. Besides, I wanted to see whinchats. 

I suppose it's experience and maybe a bit of luck, but I have started to spot locations as I drive around, which look promising, and seeing such a spot tempted me to park up for a look around. Didn't need my binoculars for what was sat on the fence across the road. A pristine looking male whinchat. 

What a find, and what a bird. In the bright afternoon sunshine he glowed with his brick red chest and striking eye stripes. 

With the traffic and strengthening breeze, he was soon moved off, but I waited and hoped. And he returned several times. 

Each time, I took as many shots as I could, while he posed on posts and the wire. After all my bad luck with this species, this was like winning the lottery. Fantastic. 

There was a female around too, though she kept to the longer grasses mainly and was closely watched over by the male. With the wind direction as it was, he didn't often face me, but for a few seconds he did and showed off how gorgeous he was. 

Eventually, he seemed to favour the area further towards the lake - maybe from the increased traffic going by, or maybe the female liked that area more. By then I had filled my card, and knowing how late it was and how windy the road home was, I chose to head back. 

Target bird of whinchat, ticked very firmly off the list.

Monday 21 May 2012

Fun At The Flashes

One of my "bogey" birds is the red-necked phalarope, and if you've read my blog since it started, you'll know I only got a very distant view of one on Uist and then failed to see any at all on Shetland (Fetlar). So when one dropped into Upton Warren's Flashes, I was keen to get over, and set about making plans to get out of work early to see it. 

The original message came as I was getting up but after being in work for about half an hour, the dreaded message came through, that the phalarope had been taken by a peregrine. I could have screamed, but before I could fill my lungs, another message pinged up, false alarm. So my plans were still on, and after clocking off at lunch, I was soon picking up Dad, so he might also try for the rarity. 

It didn't start well, with me being hailed on as I collected my gear, and then driving through a storm, with rain, more hail and sleet, battering against the windscreen as I drove to the reserve. I should have guessed that this would be an omen. Scuttling down to the hide, I opted for the dungeon and was met with familiar faces; Rob and Bob were in there, and it became clear quickly that the phalarope wasn't one for coming close. Damn! 

It seemed to like feeding right at the back, and as such, my shots could have been mistaken for dust bunnies on the sensor! Not what I had hoped for. 

Bored, I resorted to taking photos of the other rarity on site, a little gull. Not bad for a gull, but no phalarope... 

Eventually, the phalarope dared to come a bit closer, but just as we hoped for something resembling just a record shot, down came the peregrine once more, and took a small wader. 

No sign of the phalarope afterwards, and we all examined shots of the prey being carried off. Rob had a shot with the side of the bird's head shown, and we worked out it must have been a dunlin, from the shape of the beak. The second poor dunlin of the day, as it turned out. Most of the remaining dunlins took flight with the phalarope, and despite my disappointment of yet again failing to get a decent shot, I was glad it had survived to annoy me for another day. 

The following Saturday I was pencilled in for helping the Trust with a Beginners' Birding Day, which was amusing, albeit rather cold. I was camped out in the lower part of the hide again, and helped locate and ID some of the birds. 

The punters were lucky in a way, as some rarer species put in a show, with a yellow wagtail, dunlin, ringed plover and the apparently settled little gull, all made several appearances, and a nesting sedge warbler, who kindly posed on a nearby bush, made one lady's day. 

The ringed plover and little ringed plover didn't seem to get along, and had a couple of fights, which was rather amusing, given the size difference. 

The light was pretty dire though, so no special images taken, though we all had a good laugh throughout the day, munched free choccie biccies (always a result!) and hopefully inspired / encouraged a few new folks to submerge themselves in the wonderful world of wildlife.

Monday 14 May 2012

Somerset Levels

About this time of year I try to find any excuse to get down to the Somerset Levels to catch up with some of the resident and migrant species, and to put it simply, have a lovely walk in the sunshine. The latter of course has been in short supply lately, so with a sunny weekend forecast, I found myself parking up at Ashcott Corner at 7:45am, to make as much of the day as possible. 

As I opened the car door I immediately heard the call of a cuckoo, and then seconds later, the deep, resonating boom of a bittern. The cuckoo was flying around the trees at the back of the boardwalk, behind the car park, but recent rains had meant the walk itself was closed due to flooding, so I took my usual favoured choice of heading to RSPB Ham Wall first. 

The pools were bathed in morning sunshine and coots, moorhens, pochards, tufted-ducks and great-crested grebes went about their business, some still building or maintaining nests, others leading their young proudly around the edges of the reed beds, and of course the coots found something to argue over! This was all set to the strange and rather amusing chorus of the marsh frogs. 

Up above, swifts, swallows and martins chased the flying insects, of which there were a few swarms, as usual attracted to me like flies around erm, let's not finish that line! Sharing the skies were one of my target birds, hobbies. Initially there was only one out hunting, but as the morning temperatures rose, numbers increased to maybe 8 or 10 of these fantastic, agile birds of prey. 

I set the tripod up and tried to get any shots as they came close enough, which was a rarity sadly, though I'm used to this, after spending hours watching and waiting for them at spots like Exminster Marshes over the years. Regardless of success rate, just watching them was great. 

Eventually, my neck got tired of being craned backwards and I thought it was time to wander over to Shapwick Heath. While the bitterns at Ham Wall were booming, they were rarely flying - in fact I only got to see one flying, and that was too low to focus on, skimming the tops of the reeds. Maybe I'd see more on the other side. 

Across the waterway in one of the lagoons were a few godwits and what looked to be a little egret springing around after food, in a rather camp manner. But by now the heat haze made anything that far off pointless photographing, so I continued towards the hides, where I could sit down for a bit and munch my sandwiches. 

Just before the bridge, I happened to bump into a friend who had also made the trip down there, albeit even earlier than me (and I thought I was mad!), who then informed me that had I gone into Shapwick Heath first, I'd have surely seen a glossy ibis and seven common cranes. Unlike me though, she was chasing invertebrates, although coincidentally on a route that took her from one cake shop to another! Maybe I should plan my walks better, to end up at a pub?! 

Just as I was starting to regret my earlier decision, a cry from behind us of "CRANES!!" grabbed our attention, and a glance skywards revealed a pair, miles up, circling on the thermals, calling out. They were a bit easier to follow than the hobbies, but so very high up, and were soon joined by a further three. I have to admit, their call is rather haunting, in a nice way. 

As they disappeared off into the distance, the lure of cakes was obviously too much, and I was left to head to the hides on my own once more, and my luck continued to improve as I entered the hide to be told I'd missed a bittern right in front, by about 3 minutes. With the hide full, I wandered out again and over to the other one, which was empty and I could eat and peer out in peace. The view of the Tor was fantastic - lovely to see it lit up by the afternoon sunshine. Aside from a flying bittern at distance and a few more hobbies, the view was a bit barren, and I decided to head elsewhere. 

A squacco heron had been seen and photographed nearby at a place called Blagdon Lake, but details of exactly where to go were sketchy, and I ended up at the wrong end of the lake, asking locals where to go. Apparently I needed a permit, but there were loads of people down there and they'd know what to do, I was informed. I eventually found the small crowd, and was immediately put on to the heron, which was creeping around the edge of the lake, amongst wild flowers and tall grass, making it tricky to get a clear shot. 

It was an usual looking bird, with warm sand-coloured feathers, and a crop of longer ones off the back of its head, much like an egret. 

I had only been there for maybe 10 minutes when the warden arrived, and after admitting I didn't have the permit he was asking to see, he said I could get one from Chew Valley Lake, but then realised I was too late for that and asked me to leave. He did preach to me about checking details on the internet first, but all I'd seen was "Follow on-site instructions". The only on-site instructions I heard (or seen) were "You're trespassing, I'll have to ask you to leave!" Ah well, I had some shots, which was the main thing. I do think they're missing a trick though, by not selling passes to people on site, like places such as Upton Warren. So I upped sticks and left. 

A kind couple who had chatted to me at Blagdon had told me of a spot with a barn owl, so while I considered heading back, I diverted to this spot instead. The barn owl was sat quite far off in a tree outside its box, but another helpful birder put me on to a dunlin, right on the edge of the lake. 

After that was scared off by a loony driver blasting by at ridiculous speeds, I waited for the owl to do something... it didn't. May as well have been stuffed! With a 90 minute drive home and sore eyes after a long day in the sun and breeze, I chose to head back. Another fine day in Somerset which as usual left me wanting more.

Fabulous Foxes

Those of you who follow this blog will surely have read about the foxes I failed to get any footage of recently, due to a camera setting issue. Since then, I have been keeping an eye on the garden each evening in the hope of seeing them again to try for some shots. But I wasn't expecting to spot them on a Friday morning, as I got ready for work! 

As before, there were four cubs, though one seemed less inclined to join in and the mother, a vixen whose tail seemed to have lost a fair amount of fur since the last sighting. The light wasn't great so I dialled in 1600 ISO and opened the 100-400mm up wide, and started to try for some shots out of the bedroom window. 

It was challenging to do, as part of me simply wanted to watch them play, and did they ever! They were chasing each other, round and round flower beds, diving into the shrubs, bursting out and leaping with that limitless energy of youth. 

Mostly mum watched over them, occasionally following them when they vanished from sight, and stepped in when the play fights seemed to be perhaps getting out of hand. 

Then she decided to join in and chased her youngsters around the lawns at amazing speed, changing direction in an instant, easily catching up when she chose to. I have to admit I lost track of time and was late for work as a result, having to drag myself away from the action. 

Urban foxes get bad press for isolated incidents, but you would have to be very cold not to have smiled at their antics, and at how adorable the cubs were. 

I know they will face dangers from traffic, litter and other wildlife in their futures, but for that hour or so when they were in my garden, they seemed to be having the time of their lives, and I was very grateful to have watched them.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Wheels And Dials

Another wet Bank Holiday was initially forecast, but at the last minute, things changed and the weekend itself at least, promised some sunshine, although it was going to be cold. I had to turn down an offer of heading to the Elan Valley with Stuart, on account of having to collect a new(er) car. Typically, after finally deciding to keep the old one for a year longer after finally paying it off, one thing after another went wrong. Head gasket (caught early thankfully), radiator, then a puncture and the final nail in the coffin, the turbo failed. 

So now I have a newer car, one that ought to be better for the sort of bumpy track I seem to find myself trundling down these days, and a bit more room for kit in it. And to test it out, as soon as I could, I immediately headed down to the area around the southern end of the Malverns. I like Castlemorton Common, though I called into Longdon en-route, hoping to see some of the rarities mentioned recently online. I'd have needed good eyesight, as I turned out I was stood about a mile from where I was supposed to, but spotted and photographed a kestrel, as it perched on an overhead cable. 

On the Common, sadly being a Saturday afternoon, it was infested with dog walkers, and everything worth photographing was miles off. I didn't take a single photo, though I was pleased to see my first cuckoo of the season. 

An early start on Sunday and I was on Long Mynd before 8am. Unlike some of my friends who have amazing eyesight, I sometimes find my contact lenses refuse to sit right, and I can't get a clear view out of one eye. As I was about to get out of the car on the hill, I heard and then saw a red grouse flying in, so closed the car door again, and swung the camera over for a shot. Despite the bird being not that far off, I just couldn't seem to focus on it, so ended up rubbing my eyes and trying again. The camera seemed to focus though, as was shown when I looked at the LCD on the back. 

Oh well, maybe a walk would help clear them. Down into the valleys, hoping to see maybe a whinchat or stonechat. Saw neither. Lots of willow warblers, meadow pipits and chaffinches, but not a lot else. Near the top of one of the steep sided inclines seemed to be a fair amount of smaller birds, so in a moment of madness, I chose to climb (yes, with the camera balanced over one shoulder) up the hillside, clinging on to gorse bushes for grip. Took a fair time too, as I'm not exactly fit, and by the time I'd made it to the path, all the birds I'd been watching had either died laughing at me, or flown off. I did see a whitethroat, though it was as usual, too far to bother photographing. Luckily, the walk back to the car was dead easy, and along the way I spotted a pair of red kites circling. 

Back in the car, I drove towards the gliding club, and stopped near some trees, to see if they held any surprises. A flash of red, with a flickering tail and I knew I'd found a redstart. Initially, it landed quite close, but again my eyes were playing up, and I had to trust the camera for the shots. 

But with it being a Sunday, the road soon became too busy, with hikers, cyclists (who insist on talking to each other so loudly you'd think they were in the next county, rather than being 3 feet away from each other) and lunatic car drivers who hurtle along the single track roads without a care (or brain cell between their ears) in the world. So I got out and headed into the wooded area. I was glad of my hand-warmer and woolly hat, as within moments of leaving the warmth of the car, it began to snow! In May. So much for Spring... 

As I crept closer to the redstart, the sun returned and I hoped to get a reasonable shot of it on one of the old, moss-covered broken branches. Suddenly, the bird flew off. I started to wonder if I'd spooked it when a voice behind me asked what I was looking for. Not one, but about 10 birders on a walk had seen me, and come into the area I was to see what I was up to. Without being too sarcastic I said I was hoping for a shot of a redstart, if I could get close enough. Obviously too subtle, as they then sat down behind me, no more than 10 feet away to have a picnic, and chatted loudly about where they were off to next, what they'd seen etc. I know it's a free world etc, but do I need to wear a big badge saying "I'm trying to photograph something, so please keep quiet and still"? Or maybe a reversible one that says "Just s*d off will you?" ;-) 

Anyway, eventually they left, and by then I'd gone further off, and with some patience, I got a couple of pics before the light failed, and more snow came down. 

I was starting to get rather cold too, so thought it'd be best to head home. Later on the evening, I heard something in the garden and peered out. A vixen with 4 playful cubs, hurtling around. Hoping to get maybe some video footage, I grabbed the camera and put on the 100-400mm lens, and stuck it out the window. By then I was wearing my glasses, and seeing the camera fail to focus once more filled me with dread. Not another failure? 

Well no. After a bit of testing, with a kit lens in the kitchen, I realised the camera was focusing fine. Then the penny finally dropped. The dioptric adjustment dial on the eyepiece had moved when the camera was resting on my car seat! What a prize plonker! Adjusted back to normal and everything was clear once more. I'm used to the Mode Dial on the camera moving when I have the camera on the passenger seat, but never had this issue before. Yet another thing to check before I can take a shot!! I need some sort of rig to hold the blasted thing in the seat now, to avoid such annoyances again. 

In the words of a great cartoon character, D'oh!