Tuesday 31 December 2013

Two-Barred Crossbills, Velvet Scoters, Redwings And A Shrike

It's the last day of the year and I'd better get something written down here of recent trips out. Aside from dipping on the parrot crossbills at Budby Common (Notts) - that was fun, standing looking at a puddle for about 6 hours and seeing no sign of the birds - I have had better luck with their two-barred relatives, a velvet scoter and also a great grey shrike which has decided to (hopefully) over-winter down the road from home.

Two-Barred Crossbills

The two-barred crossbills caught my attention, as there was little else around locally, and they were in a part of the Wyre Forest I'd not explored before. With the help of other interested folks, I was soon peering through a scope at a fine male crossbill, as it fed on one of the cones. Moments later I had it in view through my lens, and despite the distance and low light, bagged some record shots of it.

It was one of maybe 5 around, and amongst a large flock of common crossbills. Best views of these I've ever had.

They soon dispersed, along with some friends I'd bumped into up there too, and I was left hoping the flock would return. After about an hour, I decided to head back to the car, but along the way saw a small flock of commons feeding, so hung around an area and hoped.

My luck was in, they flew over to where I was waiting, and the two-barred crossbills joined them.

Much closer views this time, though typically they were on the wrong side of the tree.

And I took the chance to get some shots of the common crossbills too - wasteful to ignore them!

Velvet Scoter

The next bird to tempt me was a male velvet scoter, seen over in Leicestershire. I had managed to get shots of a female earlier in the year, but the male is much more of a striking looking bird. A birder wandering away from the reservoir kindly explained where he'd seen the scoter, and it meant a long(ish) walk around the edge to the other side to view.

Alas after driving over in sunny conditions, the weather had deteriorated and the water was grey and choppy. Even so, seeing the scoter so close up was a treat.

It gradually moved across the reservoir which was good because the water was calmer over the other side, and it was on the way back to my car!

Watching it feed gave me an idea. It seemed to dive down, maybe 75 yards from the shore, and chase its prey under the water, surfacing much closer in each time. Kneeling in wet mud and goose droppings (lovely) I waited by the water's edge and hoped.

It appeared right in front of me.

Would have been nicer to have had some decent light, but I was pretty pleased with the images of it.


Bramblings have arrived in good numbers again, and whilst I was hoping to get some half decent shots of those, I had a look around the immediate area and found a small cul-de-sac with flocks of redwings feasting on some berries in a hedge.

With good light for once, I was able to take dozens of shots at close range of these lovely winter thrushes, plus blackbirds too.

Definitely my best redwing shots to date.

And rather festive looking too!

And I got a brambling in the end too...

Great Grey Shrike

The great grey shrike was reported some days back and I watched it from the roadside one afternoon, followed by an early start to watch from dawn. I've seen several of them now and had very good views of one at Napton some years back. They're flighty subjects if approached, but as they cover (usually) quite a large area, if you position yourself within range, hide and hope, you might get a good view. After taking a long route to the area, to deliberately avoid the bird, I set up behind a thorn bush and waited.

The bird seemed to favour the fields near the road, but had a larder within one of the thorn bushes, to which it would return to, every so often. It wasn't bothered by buzzards, herons or kestrels, but the magpies liked to mob it.

After about 3 hours I got some reasonable views, but the light was in the wrong direction really, and I rarely got a close, clean view.

When it wasn't being chased by magpies, it got scared off by other folks in the fields, which was annoying but often the case in this game!

Aside from trips to local reserves, I've been kept in by the weather of late, so anything caught in sunshine is a bonus. Still no sign of any shorties yet, though they often don't appear until February, so still time yet.

Nothing else to say other than hope you all have a great 2014! Happy New Year!!

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Nature's Feast Seed Blends

The beauty of Nature's Feast's Twist feeders is that you can easily see which food offering within them is proving most popular with the birds. Hence, when Nature's Feast asked me to test out three of their seed blends, I already had an idea of how to do it.

I was given:

* High Energy No Mess 12 Seed
* Supreme 8 Seed Blend
* Everyday 4 Seed Blend

I have two Twist feeders, so put the 8 and 4 seed blends into two sections of each, and for the third section of each, filled one with the High Energy mix, and the other with a supply of black sunflower seeds.

Then it was simply a case of observing the feeders, which at this time of year isn't that easy, when you go out to work or with the Festive season approaching, have to attend get-togethers, away from home.

I'm quite lucky with the array of birds that visit my garden. I generally see decent numbers of house sparrows, blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits, green, bull, gold and chaffinches, nuthatches, robins and dunnocks, wrens and goldcrests, blackbirds, starlings, collared doves, wood pigeons, song thrushes, magpies, jays, carrion crows, plus at the moment, a most welcome pair of blackcaps.

Last winter, I found that the High Energy Supreme mix from Nature's Feast attracted a siskin to my garden for the first time, so I had high hopes of spotting something new with these mixes.

Unsurprisingly, the High Energy No Mess mix went first. It was popular with finches, tits, robins and the nuthatches, though that made a change from them taking several black sunflower seeds each visit, before darting off into the apple trees at the rear of the garden to stash them.

The 8 and 4 seed blends were a hit with the sparrows mainly, and when I tried some of it on the tray feeders, it was taken by the greedy wood pigeons and collared doves over a few days.

I think at this time of year though, when the bite of winter hasn't yet set in, the birds still have other food sources around, so aren't so reliant on the food we put out. To test this theory, after the 4 and 8 blends had been consumed from the Twist feeders, I refilled with a mix from another supplier, to see how that fared. It would appear to be even slower to be taken, as it's been out there for almost 2 weeks now, and is not in need of being refilled.

So based on this rather unscientific test, the 4 and 8 blends, are less popular than the high energy ones, but in my experience, better than similar mixes available elsewhere.

Having found a local stockist of their products, I hope to test more over the winter, when the weather deteriorates and the birds are visiting the feeders more often, to see if these new blends, as well as the one from last winter, attract siskins again, and maybe something unusual. A redpoll would be nice again.

Disclaimer: Images used for this blog are mine and from my garden, but from before this test took place. Had such dull weather during the test that I couldn't get anything worth airing.

Monday 25 November 2013

Long Weekend In Norfolk

After the warmth of Lindos, the following weekend's trip to Norfolk was back to earth with a bang. While it wasn't as cold as I have experienced on the east coast, it certainly wasn't t-shirt and shorts weather, as I'd acclimatised to over there! The plan was to meet with Steve and Ann at Titchwell, but I couldn't resist calling into Thornham on the way, and as it turned out, neither could they, as we bumped into them at the car park!

Steve spotted a spoonbill out on the marshes which gave us a fright, when it started to fly towards us. Neither of us had our cameras on us, and after a dash back to grab them, we managed to pick the wrong channel to watch, as it flew past us down the other one, and off into the distance. Swine!

At Titchwell, we were slightly disappointed to see the water level in the freshwater marsh quite high, which favours the wintering ducks, and pushes all the waders into the distance. Near the first hide were teal and wigeon, but just too far off were 100s of golden plover, mostly snoozing with their heads tucked under a wing.

Wandering down to the beach, we tried to see what a few groups of birders were peering at through their scopes on the sea. Even walking down to the mud and rocks, closer to the shore didn't help - maybe I need to invest in a scope? No, that's something else I'd have to carry! We eventually worked out that there was a long-tailed duck out there, but given the views of them I'd had in Scotland, I didn't bother with any photos. Closer to us were the usual waders, including grey plovers, though only in winter plumage.

As usual, both Steve and I kept an eye on reports coming in from Twitter and Bird Guides etc, and several reports of a black redstart down at Cley Spy tempted us away from the beach, though not before we witnessed several dozen huge flocks of winter thrushes coming in over the sea. Quite a remarkable sight.

At Cley Spy (Glandford) we quickly found the black redstart which was perched on a roof of one of the buildings in the yard. Light wasn't great and sadly it soon relocated to another building, too far off to photo.

While Steve and Ann headed back to stock the 'van up, Dad and I tried the owl site. Unlike last year, the barn owl chose only to appear after the light had completely gone (maybe it had assumed Kate was with us again?). It was also joined by a short-eared owl, but even at ISO 3200 I couldn't get anything worth even airing on here. Good to see though.

After a good evening out at the Lifeboat, we sank back into the usual habit of visiting the harbours, with Brancaster being most productive this time. Work is being done on the sea defenses at Thornham, so it was somewhat restricted for wandering around. As well as the usual turnstones at Brancaster, we saw more grey plovers, brent geese, godwits, little egrets, curlew and quite a few skylarks.

With brightening conditions, we headed down the coast to Glandford again to catch up with the black redstart, which was still around.

With slightly windier weather it had taken to sheltering on the sides of the buildings, amongst the tiles.

Its feathers certainly seemed to match the tiles!

Based in Hunstanton, we tried a new pub which has sprung up since last year, only to find a 45 minute wait to be even seated, so diverted to another pub / club on the front, which served Adnams and also some hearty grub, which was very reasonably priced.

Waking to rain the following morning, I dragged Dad out just to see if anything was around. If you don't look, you don't see. As we drove along the coastal road, I caught a fleeting glance of what I thought might have been a harrier perched up, and decided to go have a second look. Not a harrier but a crow, and in order to get safely back on to the road from the field I was in, I had to drive further into it... and spotted something moving at speed on some bales of hay.

A stoat!

What fortune! I only ever seem to see these for a split second and they're gone, but this one seemed to be slightly insane, almost turning itself inside out as it changed direction so radically.

If only it had been brighter (raining at the time) so I could have attempted to get a shot of it leaping.

Sadly, by the time Steve could join us the stoat had vanished, and despite visiting the site several times, we never saw it again. However, it did tempt us to look in the surrounding fields, instead of focusing solely on the harbours. And what a good move that was. We saw red-legged partridges, hares, marsh harriers, yellowhammers and many other birds.

One marsh harrier we saw was sat in the middle of field eating something, which turned out to be a squirrel, from what I can tell.

And in most fields, there appeared to be several hares, mostly distant. Amazing how they blend into the vegetation - whilst photographing one, another suddenly appeared much closer, and legged it off into the hedge before I could grab a shot. I think Steve and Ann revisited the area frequently after we'd left and enjoyed great success with the hares.

Alas we were only there for a few days, and spent the last evening hoping for some barn owl action. None came, but we did see loads of little egrets flying over, to roost elsewhere. Maybe 200+ over the 2 hours we were waiting.

Our final morning was spent initially on Hunstanton esplanade in hope of some waders, but the tide was too high, and then over at Brancaster harbour. A little egret stalked the shallows; maybe one of the flocks seen at dusk.

With the light fading, and it becoming too difficult to photo anything, let alone the turnstones in flight, as I was attempting, we said our goodbyes to Steve and Ann, and headed back home.

Another good trip though and while I had planned to return the following weekend, the weather forecast put me off. Thankfully the weather improved after we'd left and both Steve and Ann bagged some wonderful images during their stay.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Lindos, Late In The Year

Lindos seems to be becoming an annual fixture of late, though the timing of the trip seems to vary, this year being scheduled within October, which is the latest I've ever been there. As before, it was supposed to be a family, relaxing break, not one for chasing wildlife. That said, I get bored sat beside a pool, so before going, I checked the net for any recent blogs covering the location and noted some ideas. As before, I took over my 7d and 100-400mm lens.

The only area that interested me, which had to be within walking distance (we don't hire cars), was down near St Paul's bay, at a water treatment site. On the walk down the hill, I heard and then spotted a blue rock thrush, perched up on some boulders above the path. Grabbed a couple of shots before it flew out of sight.

The site itself stunk, so I headed closer to the sea, and scanned the surrounding rocks. On the shore in the distance was an egret, though too much heat haze shimmer to work out what sort. Calling from between the rocks were crested larks, and there were sparrows and linnets around, feeding from the wild bushes. Flocks of finches (including sparrows) periodically flew overhead, and off south, down the coast.

The site was supposed to be good for shrikes, as there are many insects around. Indeed there were butterflies, including the stunning swallowtail, and dragonflies too. But no shrikes, that I could see. A rock thrush called from nearby, but I didn't fancy climbing over rocks to get closer.

There was also a warbler feeding on small insects - a chiffchaff perhaps?

Unlike earlier in the year, there were very few kestrels flying overhead, though I did see a pair of sparrowhawks hunting frequently, and later in the week, a hobby too. The local peregrine falcons occasionally shot by, scaring the rock doves from their perches on the hillside.

As before, Dad and I spent the afternoons on the balcony of the apartment, hoping to see something interesting fly over the hills. However it was a morning when we got out first view of a long-legged buzzard, which was gorgeous. We were even more pleased when a second one came into view soon after, and it wasn't the only time we saw them.

We even saw them perched on the hillside at times, seemingly enjoying the view!

On a walk down into the town one evening, I saw a bird perched high on a tree top, fluttering upwards to catch flies. Using Dad's compact camera I managed to get a shot, zoom in and identify it as a spotted flycatcher. Then later, when we were sat outside a favourite bar (the Rain Bird) I couldn't help but notice a number of birds flying about amongst the trees below, in an area behind the main beach. One for the next day, perhaps?

Curiosity tempted me down there the next morning, and I found the area to be alive with birds and insects. Large flocks of sparrows were feeding on the fruit, both on and off the trees. There is a small garden by a stone chapel and this has a tiny pool, kept full with a hose pipe. This as a focal point for the birds, bringing in the sparrows mainly, but also collared doves, hooded crows and jays.

The insects around attracted both grey and pied wagtails (maybe white?), plus some unidentified warblers, possibly chiffchaffs. It didn't take me long to spot one of the spotted flycatchers, and I soon realised that several were around the area.

A fleeting glimpse of a Sardinian warbler was a treat, but a stranger wandered up the path, peered over the wall to look at what I was photographing, scared it off, and then returned to the beach again. Where do these people appear from?

Whilst trying to get a decent shot of the flycatcher out in the open, I thought I'd got it on a twig, when I realised it had a dark band across its eye. It wasn't the flycatcher but a red-backed shrike. Excellent!

It seemed to be catching insects, caterpillars generally. And after I had got a clearer view, I realised it had a deformed beak; the lower part being overly long. Sort of looked like a crossbill! Didn't affect it catching food though.

Hence I then spent a good couple of hours trying to get a clear shot, with my luck finally changing further up the path when it flew towards me, and posed for a few seconds on a small sprig. Fab.

Taking the long walk back, I went over to the headland beneath the Acropolis and found more rock thrushes and crested larks, plus crag martins which were far too fast to get shots of, at such close range. By now I was rather hot and in need of a break, so I didn't try too much, to be honest! Besides, I got a shot from the apartments already...

Later in the week, a stroll along the back of the beach resulted in great views of another Sardinian warbler, right when I had an extension tube on my lens, so couldn't get a shot, and another spotted flycatcher near the path.

Little else though, and I was glad to meet up with my brother to enjoy a couple of ice cold beers in the Dolphin bar behind the beach!

Aside from the usual lizards, we didn't see any huge crickets, nor any wheatears eating them. I did see a robin one afternoon and plenty of large moths. No sign of the little owl on the hills which was a shame too. I guess it was a bit late in the year. Still, it wasn't a wildlife trip, so getting any photos were always going to be a bonus.

Maybe my favourite shot of the trip came after being advised to watch the sun rise, by my brother who had seen it one morning. The sun appears over the Acropolis and turns the sky and sea a fabulous colour. And at that time of the year, getting up for the sunrise wasn't such a hardship!

Not sure when we will return to Lindos - maybe it's time for somewhere new?