Monday 31 December 2012

Dismal Days

So another year has almost gone by, seemingly in a river of rain water. Dismal days summed up the wettest year on record with a band of rain following me up and down the country, with the only real exception being a few days in March spent in St Ives, when we were treated to some unseasonable warmth and glorious Cornish sunshine. 

December has been particularly dull, and after booking off a few days over the festive period, I've spent most of them sat in the house, looking out at the rain. Such a waste of valuable time off. I have popped out a couple of days though, when the clouds have stopped shedding their load. With such short days, travelling far afield is a bit pointless, so I've found myself camping out in the new hide at the Moors pools, at Upton Warren. 

On both visits I waited until dusk to see the bittern, though it only showed one afternoon, and for about 5 seconds. Not quite the majestic views had down on the levels, or even a couple of winters ago on the North Moors pool. Still, there are other subjects to point the lens at. 

Finches - green, chaff and bull varieties frequent the feeders, in good numbers too. I often overlook more common species like the greenfinch and chaffinch, so when they posed on something interesting, I took a shot. 

I do love the colours on these birds - enough to brighten up a dull day. 

But the bullfinches steal the show every time. They have a glow to them and really stand out in the darkness of hedges. 

The family of rats still seem to be enjoying the free food on offer, and show their ability to climb when they fancy a nibble on suet. Or just sit looking rather plump, munching on the ground. 

Every so often the unmistakeable call of long-tailed tits chirrups out and over they come, in their small flock, bobbing and flowing, taking it in turns to feed on whatever takes their fancy, usually the suet. 

Such fluffy looking birds with those distinctive stripes over their heads. 

Occasionally the secretive water rails would break cover, usually scuttling across the channels, or swimming at pace. 

So while perhaps the one star of the show failed to show, another resident put in a couple of appearances, and brought a smile to many of the folks I was sharing the hide with. 

A kingfisher, which tried fishing from all manner of perches, though I didn't see it make a successful catch. 

The "man-made" perches provided the closest views, though when it chose natural ones, like reed maces, the shots were arguably more attractive. 

Thanks to everyone who has read, followed and commented on this blog over the year, and let's hope 2013 brings less rain, more bright weather and loads of great subjects for me to photo and share on this Blog. Cheers!

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Yellow Wax And Green Wood

With the days being as short as they are at this time of year, I try to minimise any driving, to maximise time photographing during the daytime. So unless a mega rarity crops up that really takes my fancy, I see what's around locally. 

Whilst out at a Christmas meal with family on Friday, I missed a call from Bob, who kindly left a message to say that the waxwings were back at Hartlebury Trading Estate, and as they were feeding on yellow berries, it might make a nice change. That answered my question of where to go on Saturday! 

On the way I chose to try out the SatNav feature on my iPhone for a change to my normal one, and found the American voice rather comical, though the occasional delay with it instructing me at junctions, and its terms for routes (though it pronounced that word the British way) slightly confusing. Still, it's a Beta apparently and I soon found myself driving down towards a small crowd of togs standing near a tree, laden with yellow berries. So it works fine! 

The birds were around, and as is typical with waxwings, they were feeding, then flying off to a higher perch on another tree to digest the berries taken. 

Despite the weather being supposedly decent, after the first half an hour or so, clouds drifted across and made the shots of the waxwings rather dull. And as usual, whenever the sun did make an appearance, the waxwings were elsewhere. 

This didn't stop me from taking shots of other birds though, and I was pleased to see both redwings and fieldfares also taking the berries. 

The redwings tended to remain in the middle of the tree, which didn't make for quite so pretty shots, though one could say that they're pretty enough by themselves to warrant a photo. 

Learning from the waxwings on how to reach the berries at the ends of branches, one blackbird balanced down the thin stems to reach them, and in a rare moment of sunshine positively glowed in doing so. Undoubtedly the best blackbird pics I've ever taken, as they're a bird often overlooked, or found poking around amongst shrubs, and not in the clear. 

During the day, the waxwings started to fly off away from view, so we wondered where they were off to. John (Starkey) opted to have a look around the estate, and while he failed to find them, he did spot a green woodpecker. Later on, when the waxwings had been AWOL for some time, we both headed off to look for the woodie, but it had gone too. Fairly typical with my luck, ignoring last week's fluke. 

All the smiles from seeing the birds during the day vanished when one of the togs failed to secure his camera and 500mm lens on the tripod head properly, and it fell - in apparent slow motion to all us horrified onlookers - down to the concrete, where it bounced a couple of times, and rolled into a puddle. No-one said anything for a second. The camera was broken along with the converter which wouldn't come off, but Bob tested the lens with his Nikon, and that miraculously worked fine. All insured, but we all felt so awful. I shudder thinking about it now. 

On the way home, with Bob's advice, I called in to a local Christmas tree centre and picked up one for home. Barely fit in the car and various obscenities were uttered when decorating it, as the needles spiked my hands! Still, the odour from it lifts my spirits every time I enter the room. 

With no mega-interesting birds appearing, I thought I would perhaps try again on Sunday. Waking up, I peered out of the curtains to see fog. Great. I chose to have a bit of a lie in. Was soon bored of that idea and went out anyway, only to discover that it was just Birmingham under the mist, and beyond the Lickey Hills, glorious sunshine awaited. Back down at the trading estate I was greeted with rather annoyed looking faces. Not at me, but at a ringer who had just left, having caught a couple of the waxwings and scared the rest off. 

Brilliant, especially when the birds were already flighty before. After a chat with friends, I chose to drive off around the estate to see if I could work out where they'd gone to hide. I tried all the roads I could see and probably raised the suspicions of the local security guards as I tootled around peering out of the screen. No sign of the waxwings anywhere, but I did see a green woodpecker. It was initially in a tree, but flew off (of course) when I lined the camera up at it. 

On my drive around, I'd seen an area of ground I considered perfect for such woodpeckers, so drove back over there, parked up and waited. I was in contact with Ken back at the waxwing site, in case they showed up, but I could see blackbirds, robins, goldfinches, greenfinches, rooks, magpies, the occasional raven, gulls, redwings, jays and then, at a distance, a green woodpecker appeared. 

It was a distance too, and my view was obscured by a thin wire mesh fence. But with nothing in the waxwing tree, I stayed put and hoped. It took a while, but eventually the woodie came within reasonable range for some shots, and with me in my car, it didn't fly off either, even when it heard the shutter going. 

Add to the mix a bit of sunshine, and I took a load of shots. I wasn't sure if they'd come out what with shooting through the fence, but having seen them on the PC now, I was pleased I did. 

The majority of the time I was photographing a female (black patches under the eyes) as she fed on the ground, or when spooked, perched on a post or tree. 

But there was a male around - maybe a juvenile too, as can be seen from the shots - the male has a red patch under the eye. He was more vigorous with his digging, and hence mucky around the face. Dirty boy! Both seemed to find a great deal to eat on the ground though. 

Then a call came in - the waxwings were back. Dilemma. Should I stay or should I go? Without breaking into a song, I stayed. I have hundreds of photos of waxwings, and hardly any of green woodpeckers. And as there were two birds edging closer, I crossed my fingers of some better shots. 

Suddenly I heard the gulls going mad, cast a glance down the road and saw them chasing a buzzard. The peckers, which had been playing statues for most unusual sounds they heard, chose to abandon that idea and fly off, cackling loudly as they did. The light had also all but gone, and I headed back to see the waxwings (and friends) before heading home. 

As a footnote to this blog, an image of a fieldfare I had taken on the Saturday has been chosen by the BBC as the banner image on their Facebook Springwatch group page, for the forthcoming Winterwatch programmes. I am chuffed to bits, to put it mildly, especially as they have included a credit on the main image.

Monday 10 December 2012

A Waxwing And Winter Thrushes

About time I added something to this blog! With Christmas rapidly approaching, free time is getting harder to find, especially when the weather can so often ruin any chance to go out with the camera. I have spent a few evenings going through old sets of images, processing those which were shelved or too similar at the time to air, including a few from Northants, when we were treated to some wonderful afternoons photographing short-eared owls. 

But on Saturday it was supposed to be sunny and not too cold. A scan of the rare birds on various sites showed little of interest within a sensible distance, so I headed down to Wychbold, or precisely the garden centre opposite Upton Warren's sailing centre (by the Flashes). After there had been 46 waxwings present during the week, when I arrived there was just a lone bird helping itself to the berries on the trees lining the fence. Of course, as soon as I wandered over and set up, it flew off, to a poplar tree behind the sailing centre. 

That gave me a brief chance to natter to some friends who were already there. It wasn't long through before it returned to feed, and I set myself up hoping to get some shots of it against a blue sky backdrop. 

Kindly the waxwing hopped down from the top and out along a branch to reach some of the berries on the edge of the tree. Then it was a case of timing the shots to when the bird had grabbed a berry, and hoping it would play catch with it, before eating it... or more often than not, dropping it! 

With only a light breeze, the branches remained still, so getting sharp shots was a doddle, and I had time to switch between landscape and portrait for shots, depending on how the waxwing was positioned. 

It would occasionally fly off for a while, to digest the berries, before returning, and continuing its quest to strip them from the trees. 

It wasn't long before the majority of togs and birders left, but I was soon joined by Keith, and then later by Bob, in his freezer suit. He'd already bagged a fair few delightful shots of the flock down at Hartlebury trading estate, but is never one to refuse further opportunities. 

Eventually, just after lunchtime the bird flew off and didn't come back immediately. A birder wandering along mentioned he'd seen one around the back of the truck stop, so we strolled over, and sure enough, this was where the bird had been vanishing to, and was sat in a bramble / berry bush, almost invisible if you hadn't heard it calling. Photos were impossible as it didn't stray, until that is, it flew back to where we'd just been! 

Bob opted to stay for more pics - I chose to head elsewhere. I wanted to see some other thrushes, maybe get pics of redwings and fieldfares. With nothing particular in mind for a location, it was a magical mystery tour, following my nose wherever it wanted to go. We (that's me and my nose) went over to Holt, past Grimley and then out into the sticks from there, where we eventually came upon a grassy meadow, with dozens of the birds feeding. Well done that nose.

The light by then was low, so getting shots of the birds trickier than I'd hoped, and the flock often relocated when vehicles or cyclists went by. I stuck at it, and got a few shots. 

Then, from out of the woods nearby flew a green woodpecker, which landed on a tree pretty close! Unfortunately there were a couple of branches blocking a clean view, and rather than climb further up the trunk for me, it chose to fly off to the ground slightly further off, to feed. 

I hardly ever seem to get shots of these, so I grabbed a few, even if the light was mostly gone. 

When that flew off, I thought it was best to head back, and perhaps try the same spot again, should another weekend soon be blessed with bright conditions and free time...