Monday 29 October 2012


I seem to be a creature of habit and as the summer fades away I find the lure of the east coast irresistible, and it usually also serves as a reminder that England can provide great things to photograph when suffering a hangover from the joys of Mull. 

Of course I'd already been down to Somerset, twice, but only for weekends which never really allow you to settle into a place. With a week booked for Norfolk, based in my favourite spot (Wells-next-the-Sea), I could absorb what the area has to offer, and be pretty central to most places, should a rarity arrive. 

With Dad in tow, we met up with Ian on the Saturday at RSPB Titchwell Marsh, and after one of their excellent breakfast rolls, wandered down to the hides along the path to the beach. Not that we've enjoyed much of a summer, the lack of warmth along the path in the breeze across the marshes was apparent, and we were glad of the shelter that the hide provided. 

The pool had masses of golden plover around, plus distant avocets, waders and a pair of spoonbills, but the only birds close to us were teals. Eventually a few of the ruff around, pottered over and despite the gloomy conditions, we managed a few brighter shots of these birds. 

Off to the new large hide, we entertained ourselves with trying to get shots of the godwits feeding, which was harder than it looked, as they seem to permanently duck their heads underwater to probe in the mud beneath. With the light the wrong way, we didn't enjoy much success, so with a short while to kill before the owls might be out, we headed over to Brancaster Harbour. The tide was well out and only a handful of turnstones scurried around. 

Friends of mine (Steve and Ann) had been on a break in Norfolk only weeks before we arrived and let me know of a barn owl site they'd enjoyed success at, but when I tried, there seemed to be building work going on and sadly no sign of the owl. So we returned to the usual spot and waited. The light was poor and it became a case of simply hoping to see one, which we did when Hawkeye (Ian) spotted one breaking cover from some trees nearby. 

They're fantastic to watch as they float across the fields, silently hunting. I took some shots but all distant and none were worth doing anything with. It was getting dark now and Ian opted to return home, leaving us to locate the digs for the week. Great instructions from the cottage agency and we were soon pottering round the bungalow, nodding and making strange "hmm" noises of appreciation of it all. 

Alas Ian couldn't spend any more time with us, but Kate (WildlifeKate) had said she'd try to come over for a few days later in the week, and that she really wanted to see a barn owl. As such, I was up with the birds and over to the barn owl sites in the hope that I'd see some morning action. 

I tried both sites, but no owls. I did see some muntjac deer, a hare, a sprawk (sat in the tree next to me, but I failed to see it), several marsh harriers and a great spotted woodpecker. I was also pleased to see a few redwings around, battling the local song thrushes and blackbirds for the berries in the hedges. 

Before returning, I diverted to Brancaster Harbour, as it had turned into a rather lovely morning, and set about taking pics of the godwits and turnstones feeding as the mud was exposed by the retreating tide. 

Guilt got the better of me soon though and I had to return to get Dad, and we zoomed over to Titchwell again, as with a bright morning, I thought the beach might be a good bet. It was, but the tide had gone way out and most of the waders were a fair distance off. Still, we saw a few knot around, feeding on the mud and bathing. 

And occasionally a grey plover would stray close enough for a shot too. Not in breeding plumage like last year, sadly. 

Strolling back through the reserve we spotted some brent geese taking off and noticed something. Often, at least one of the flock seems to, how shall I put it, empty out, as it flies off, which now makes me very wary of any flocks I see going overhead!

As became tradition, we spent the late afternoon watching and hoping the barn owl would show. It didn't, but we did get to see a few marsh harriers come in to roost, which was entertaining, how they chase one another before dropping down for the night. I took some shots, mainly out of desperation after the owls not showing, but as you can see, the results were barely worth the effort. The original image was sooooo dark! 

A trip to Norfolk wouldn't feel right without a visit to Cley, with my favoured spot being the East Bank, which runs along the edge of the NWT reserve, up to the shingle beach. Luckily we managed to find some bearded tits quite quickly, though the males didn't come close enough when the light was good. 

The females behaved far better though! 

The pools behind the beach seem to be attractive to little egrets and sure enough one was poking about for food, waving its marigolds around under the water to see what was spooked out of its hiding place. Clambering down to eye-level with the bird I tried to get shots as it juggled with the small fish, and eventually I timed one right.

Back to Brancaster and we watched more little egrets fishing in the channels, plus turnstones, redshanks, ringed plovers and curlews. It really is a lovely spot, being parked there watching the world go by. 

Owls again and at last one came out. It was however, very dull by then and after thinking I'd bagged some reasonable shots, I was annoyed when checking later that they were a bit soft. Should have upped the ISO and shutter speed. Muppet. Ah well, there's always another go... And I wasn't alone. Dad had the owl fly right past him and he messed up his shots too, though he's less experienced and his gear isn't as good. He was livid at himself, cursing all the way home! 

Up early again the next morning, I shot down to Brancaster again, knowing the tide would be in, so would catch the waders up close. I was right, and parking close by, I had fabulous views of the ringed plover and dunlin, as they huddled on the shore, waiting for their breakfast to be revealed. It was funny as the wind was gusty and the dunlin tried to snooze, but were being blown over at times! 

As soon as the water dropped away, the feast began and I picked off individuals for pictures in the morning sunshine. 

I have masses of shots of all the birds, but they're so lovely, I can't resist more! 

Back to pick Dad up and we returned for a while longer, until the clouds rolled in and the light went awol. I did manage to spot a hen harrier flying over the marshes, which was good. Only record shots mind... 

Up the coast and we parked up at another favourite location, Thornham Harbour. With the wind very gusty now and the threat of showers, I opted to stay in the comfort of my car, though Dad battled with the elements to light his pipe. Eventually he gave up and got back in the car, just as I was peering at a pair of spotted redshanks through my bins. I was trying to make out if there were two, or one was a normal redshank when behind them loomed a white bird. I have to admit, a few naughty words escaped my mouth as I realised it was a spoonbill! Fantastic, and I was out of the car in a shot, with Dad actually leading the way for once!

From behind the boathouse, we managed a few shots as the spoonbill swung its bill left and right through the water in search of food, but the bird was heading upstream and away from us. Time for me to brave the elements and the slippery mud, as I scampered across the harbour to one of the jetties closer, and peered over the wooden rail at where I thought the bird might be. It was closer than I'd guessed and I couldn't fit it in the picture! 

The spoonbill itself seemed oblivious to my presence, though I did think it might be spooked when a pair of mallards spotted me and took flight. Then an RAF Tornado stormed over at no height at all, and that spooked it. Spooked me too! Didn't fly off far though, and I persuaded Dad to come over too. The bird returned to the same spot for a few moments, and Dad was overjoyed to get some full-frame shots too. 

Then the redshanks returned, saw us, let off the warning cries and that sent the spoonbill into flight. Thankfully I took advantage and caught it in flight as it took off, and headed deeper into the marshes. A great afternoon's work though! 

With gaps the cloud forming, it looked like it might brighten up again, and with the spotted redshanks around, we caught up with them further down the harbour. They're elegant birds, and quite different to normal redshanks when you see them, both in appearance and feeding habits.

The wind started to ease by the time we had arrived at the barn owl site, and the clouds were dispersing too. With the fields bathed in that golden light at the end of the day, one of the owls came out to play, and boy did it put on a display! 

Choosing to hunt in the field right beside where we were stood, it hovered, swooped, quartered and pounced, catching prey and hunting some more. 

It came pretty close at times too, but without a doubt was the best I've ever had at that spot. 

I know I tend to swamp these blog posts with images, but you'll have to forgive me for this one (again!). 

The light faded eventually and the owl headed away, but by then I'd filled an entire memory card on it, and ought to have a few owl shots to keep me amused for weeks. 

My only regret was that it was the day before Kate joined us, so she'd missed such a performance. Even so, the Wherry that night tasted extra special! 

It was midweek already, but the guest of honour was arriving, and as I cleared my head beside the quay at Wells, my phone rang. Kate was somewhere near the bungalow, but not quite sure where it was. Within moments I was helping unload her car and getting a brew on; much needed after a long drive. 

I had tried to plan out what we could do, and as the day promised brightness, I thought Brancaster might be a good starting point, only to discover a huge crane blocking our path - they were dry-docking some of the boats. So I headed to Titchwell instead, and after parking up, remembered that the volunteers were cutting back vegetation on the pools. No point trailing miles, I suggested the beach might be worth a go. It was windy but bright and sunny. 

Before we reached it, a godwit, little egret and a most welcome greenshank were close by in one of the pools, and provided some immediate photo ops for the three of us.

I used the trip to try out a new jacket Kate had lent me from Ridgeline - the Monsoon Smock, which is a rather nice jacket to be honest, though almost impossible to get in and out of. Fitted me well enough, and kept the wind out which was handy on the beach. The large hood also acted as a windbreak to keep my contact lenses from drying out. Still prefer my Paramo though, as it's easier to wear and more adjustable to conditions. But this isn't a review site, so back to the birds. 

Speaking of which, Kate was really enjoying a break from the never ending work she has to do back home, and was crouched down on some rather prickly seaweed / rocks trying to get shots of the waders around her. She'd borrowed her dad's 300 F2.8 coupled with a 1.4TC, a fantastic combination. I'm not sure she'll ever return it after seeing the results! 

Unlike before, there seemed to be more sanderlings around this time, though not hurtling along the shore so much, more feeding in the pools. 

Oystercatchers seemed to be loving the bright breezy conditions, flying up and down the shoreline, which amused me for a while, trying for shots. 

The wind finally got the better of us and we strolled back to the relative shelter of the main reserve, again finding the godwits close to the path, and again Kate was tempted to creep down the embankment a little, to get some lower angled shots. 

Thornham was next, with the hope of seeing the spoonbill and redshanks again. No such luck, though we did see a red kite hunting the back of the marshes near the houses. And then of course the barn owl. Would it grace us as it had the night before? 

Of course not. No, it waited until all the sunlight had gone before making a very brief appearance, and heading off to hunt miles away. Got some shots, but compared to the day before they've not been considered for processing. While Kate was disappointed not to have got similar shots, she had managed some, and just seeing one of these wonderful birds brought a smile to her face. 

Cley again - target bearded tits. It took a while but eventually a few ping-pings called out, and we tracked them down. As is typical with these birds, photographing them really isn't easy, as reeds move in their way, they move around themselves a lot and they rarely choose perches strong enough for their meagre weight. As with the barn owl, Kate was chuffed to have seen them, but still wanted some decent shots. 

As before, little egrets patrolled the pools, but despite searching, I couldn't see any snow buntings yet. Linnets, yes, though further off than at Dunster recently. On the sea though, were divers, and after approaching as carefully as I could down the beach, I got a few shots before it headed out, swimming further along the shore. 

After seeing them in summer plumage, they do look a little drab like this. All the walking had built up an appetite and the Dun Cow provided a welcome retreat, not to mention a very tasty sandwich. 

The owls were starting to annoy me later. It was a nice afternoon, calm and sunny, yet they didn't come out until dusk, and stayed miles off. I guess that's wildlife for you - unpredictable. I did manage to grab a decent marsh harrier shot, as it banked in the sky, catching the last light on the underside of its wings. 

A lovely meal in the Lifeboat at Thornham ended the day well though, with Kate demolishing a towering pudding (Eton Mess) with glee! 

Our last full day, and it was gloomy. Thornham seemed like a good bet after seeing relatively nothing at Brancaster. Standing on the point beyond the car park, we photo-ed a few waders as they mooched around. The light was horrid, though Kate's lens combo handled it without any problems, and she captured some lovely shots of curlew, grey plover and redshank beside the water. 

After taking some shots of another little egret, I turned the camera on Kate, although I chose to use the macro lens instead, and as it turns out, it's a good bit of kit for such shots. You can see the results on her website. 

Driving up the coast to Snettisham, we found it very miserable there, and expensive to park at the beach for a quick look around, so back we came, calling into Holme reserve, where we were glad of the soft suspension of the Yeti. The potholed, speed-bumped track through it is something to behold. If you have brittle bones, avoid the place!! 

Not a great deal around, though I did get some pics of grey partridges. Nothing special though. And we gave up on seeing the owls when the heavens opened. Not to be. Such a shame.

While Dad and I headed to the pub again for the last night, Kate chose to chill out in the bungalow, probably mulling over a comment I'd made before we left. She was planning to leave early-ish, to get back in good time. I had said that the forecast was good and that we were going to go to Cley for another go at the beardies... I knew she'd get the green eyes on, and delay leaving... 

We packed up and left the bungalow, which had been a fantastic base for the week, and headed to Cley again, Kate following; the temptation too much! Again on the east bank, we wandered up and down, before eventually, and it took a while, we heard the laser-battle sounds rise from the reeds, and a few small flocks started to flutter around. 

Then we got a stroke of luck, when a pair of males chased a lone female (the bearded tits, not Dad and me, before you say anything!!) along the edge of the reeds, close to us. 

Far too busy in the chase to notice us, we finally managed to get some closer shots, and made the gamble of staying a bit longer well worthwhile. Kate was beaming and so excited to have got some good images of them at last. 

A quick coffee and cake at the Trust's café and we were on the route home. A fantastic week in Norfolk once again, more fond memories to treasure and a sackful of images to process! Norfolk had once again reminded me that it can rival more distant places for photo opportunities on our fair islands, and reminded Kate how much she loves photography. A great tonic for us all.

Monday 1 October 2012

Somerset, Twice

Having just returned from Mull, Dad obviously had the taste for being away, and promptly booked a week down in Minehead, a favourite location of his (and Mum's). Getting time off so soon after Mull wasn't going to be easy, so I settled for a plan of a night (Sat) down there on the first weekend, and maybe, if possible, a return trip later in the week. 

To make the most of it, I set off early on the Saturday to beat the traffic and also give myself a fighting chance of seeing a spotted crake which had been providing amazing views at a new site (for me), RSPB Greylake. Not far from Shapwick Heath, so finding it wasn't too hard, though I did use the old SatNav. 

Walking from my car, I asked a local birder if it was still around and was relieved to hear positive comments, and within 5 mins, I was rounding the corner on the boardwalk, to the small drained lagoon, in which the bird was feeding.

I foolishly asked where it was, scanning the far reeds, only for someone to point down in front of me! It was too close to focus on! Thankfully it backed off, and I bagged a few shots. 

I have seen one before at Upton Warren, but not this close. 

It wasn't bothered at all with the people milling round, chatting and the machine-gun shutters. It'd pop out of cover, grab some sort of food, and then scuttle off again. The morning light wasn't great, and backlit the crake, but I managed to recover them for decent results. 

It eventually vanished into the reeds, not to be seen again until dusk. I had left well before then, after chatting to Carl (made a change from me nearly treading on him). I headed back to Shapwick Heath, one of my favourite reserves. 

Again, I spoke to a birder who was leaving, and he mentioned that he'd seen bearded tits. I didn't realise they had them there, and was very pleased to see a few small flocks of them floating between reed beds. Sadly never close enough for shots, they provided a moment to savour, and an excuse to plonk down my gear for a rest! 

The locally bred great white egrets stayed distant too, though a bittern kindly went for a circular flight.

Good to see, after they failed to show up locally this past winter. 

With not much else coming close, I headed back to the car and trundled over to Minehead to meet up with Dad. I had heard about an osprey on the way there, but I have plenty of shots of them (even though I was missing one locally!!), so decided not to bother. 

A quick chat with Dad, and I zipped off up North Hill, which is another favourite location, and where I spent hours chasing Dartford warblers years back. No warblers that I could see, though I did see a group of stonechats, which is always good. 

And I saw (and heard) small flocks of crossbills, though couldn't get close. Unlike the ponies which were grazing up there - they were easy to get shots of. Not that I'm overly interested in them... 

That was it for the day and I spent the rest of it examining the bottom of pint glasses, through Cornish and Somerset ales. Very nice! 

Sunday morning, and I dragged Dad up North Hill. Again, we found stonechats though this time nearer Hurlstone Point. Such a lovely spot, and while we sat there, a mass of ravens gathered over the headland - must have been close to 50 odd. Cronking away, spiralling down, chasing each other. Was quite a spectacle. 

Dunster Beach is another great spot for photography, though also a favourite for dog emptiers. We saw a few wheatears around, but quite large flocks of linnets were milling around the edges of the beach, feeding on the seed from the wildflowers and shrubs growing in the sand. Mostly they kept away, but odd ones seemed to break from the crowds, and provided photo opportunities.

I also saw a vibrantly coloured male around, but could only manage record shots of him. Dad got him close up, later in the week, the jammy so and so. 

And so it was time to head home. A short break but I was determined to come back. I did. Booked the Friday off, and headed down on Thursday afternoon. Joined Dad for an afternoon pint, and then hit the pubs once more, for some more ales! 

The next day, we shot down to Dunster Beach once again, paid the parking fees and set off looking for what Dad had seen during the week. He'd seen masses of linnets, wheatears and even a dipper! We tried for the latter first, but no sign of it. Wheatears though - they were everywhere...

And coming close too - right up to us, when we stood still. Great little birds.

A wander along the beach provided more chances with linnets, though the males had vanished. Hey ho. 

There were also plenty of pipits around, both rock and meadow varieties. And yet more wheatears... and who can refuse a photo of them? 

Back to the end by the stream / outflow, and I wandered down to the beach now the tide had gone out. It is a man made channel, but the end is sort of stepped, and allowed me to stand beside it, with the water at eye-level to me, and hence get shots of the wagtails feeding on it, from the sort of angle, you'd normally need a wetsuit to get. 

And most pleasing, there were grey wagtails present too. 

Such vibrant birds, often overlooked (by me) as they live in the same habitat as dippers. 

Sadly the dipper failed to show up, so guess what? I took yet more shots of wheatears. Masses of shots of them! 

We headed up North Hill for the end of the afternoon, hoping to catch up with some DWs, but despite having 3 of them flitting between gorse bushes near us, they never broke cover long enough for a shot, and I consoled myself with more shots of stonechats. 

After a quieter night on the pop, I was out early and after discovering the spotted crake had left, I tried Shapwick again, but aside from a half decent view of one of the great white egrets, nothing else showed or came close, and I headed home again. 

Somerset is always a pleasure to visit and while I tend to visit in Spring, it reminded me that it has plenty to offer at this time of year too.