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.