Monday 13 May 2013

A Shrike, Pipit and Some Waggies


I'd not been back from Norfolk long when a woodchat shrike turned up in Somerset and I spent several days at work hoping it would remain in situ until the weekend. Still being reported on the Friday, I was up with the birds on Saturday and down before it'd even properly got light. Parking up I clocked Carl's car which was amusing, as he'd been watching the reports too, fingers crossed all week!

Didn't have to wait long to see the bird, as it perched in a tree in front of us, though the sun hadn't come up by then and shots taken were merely for the sake of it, should it fly off suddenly. It didn't.

What followed were a great few hours watching the shrike as she caught insects both on the wing and also from the ground.

Nothing escaped her attention, bees and butterflies being particular favourites.

Despite what a couple of loud-mouthed local birders said, the shrike ignored where we were stood, flying down to snatch insects from between us at times, before returning to favoured perches either in trees or amongst the hedge.

The only problem we had that day was the wind, and the shrike often chose to perch and feed from the other side of the hedge from us, when it picked up, so as not to be moved around when scanning the area for insects.

Mid afternoon and the sun had moved around us, making the light rather harsh. Carl and I opted to call it a day and headed back up north.

Wyre Forest

With a few hours to spare one weekend, I chose to go looking for adders in the Wyre Forest, but despite checking the usual locations, I failed to see any initially. Rather disappointing, though I did find a shed skin, which has been baggsied by WildlifeKate!

Whilst mooching around the woods, I spooked a bird from an area covered in wood ants. It was a pipit, and seemed keen to return to feed, so I backed off to a safe distance (safe from the ants that is!) and waited.

Sure enough it dropped down and carried on poking about amongst the leaf litter, allowing me to get some reasonable shots as it did.

Only later did I realise it was a tree pipit, which aren't actually that common, and are usually quite flighty.

I saw an adder later on, but it slithered off before I could get the right lens out for the job!

Clifton Pits

After some reports of sub-species of yellow wagtails appeared online, I thought I'd spend a day at Clifton Pits, south of Worcester. I've been before, but only for a short visit. Parking up, I spotted a whitethroat in the hedge beside my car, but it vanished before I could get a shot.

Over the pools I could see a hobby hawking insects and I was soon beside the water, scanning for anything of interest. It was at that point I wondered if I'd left my car window open, so strolled back to find it closed, but also to bump into Steve Avery, who had also come for the wagtails.

Initially we only saw clouds of biting insects, which forced me to reach for the Jungle Formula spray - stinks but it works... Feeding off these abundant flies were flocks of sand martins, with swallows thrown in for good measure.

As well as hobbies overhead, we spotted something a bit bigger - a peregrine out hunting, though that soon zipped off at speed. Things were starting to get more interesting, and with a few pied wagtails around, we followed them to a field where we soon spotted yellow wagtails, and after careful viewing, both the blue-headed and channel wagtails.

I don't think I've seen either type before, but they're attractive little birds, though not easy to approach.

By now the heat haze was picking up as the clouds were being burned off, and getting clean shots was becoming difficult. Steve was struggling to view the screen on his video camera as he filmed the birds, not that you'd know after seeing his clip on You Tube later.

But patience yielded results, and we got pretty close to both of them eventually.

And with half a dozen normal yellow wagtails around, I didn't refuse shots of them either.

With the temperature increasing, the hobbies were hunting more frequently, and the martins seemed to increase their flights over the water. Steve decided to call it a day after getting his clips of the waggies, leaving me to photograph anything else I chose. I was supposed to be heading back to meet friends and family at the pub, but it was so lovely, I thought it'd be criminal to leave early.

While the martins, hobbies and wagtails were tempting, a familiar call from the trees nearby took my attention away. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! No prizes for guessing the bird, but I was pretty close to where it was calling from. Then I spotted it, as it broke cover, dropping down to grab something from the ground, and back up to a post where it scoffed its catch. A bit far for a shot, though I took some anyway.

Keeping as still as I could, I was chuffed when it started to hop along the posts towards me, occasionally dropping down to feed. It had just got close enough for half decent pics when another more distant call of cuckoo took its attention from feeding, and off it went.

Back to the martins, which I'd seen landing at the one end of the field, whilst I'd been playing statues waiting for the cuckoo. They were taking nesting material - old bits of straw left from where the horses had been eating. Never afraid to plonk myself down into the mud, I was soon sat in a slight dip in the ground, amongst the dust and who knows what else, waiting.

Didn't take long for the martins to ignore me, and swoop in to take bits. Getting shots of them on the ground was easy - getting them in flight, now that was a challenge.

Literally within 3 shots (burst) of them taking off, they were out of the frame. So it was very much a case of second guessing when they'd go, and hoping.

With no reason to leave, I stayed put and eventually got a few keepers from the session, even taking shots of the yellow wagtails, when they came in too close.

As the shadows lengthened, my ears and back of my neck started to itch, and I began to wish I'd packed my sunhat. By the time I'd got back to the car, the skin on my face felt like it was too small for the skull beneath it - maybe this is a cheap way of Botoxing?

A bit of sunburn was worth it for a superb day out. Just hoping for some more nice weather, as it's a place I could find myself visiting again!

Friday 3 May 2013

Norfolk For Forty

Normally any sort of landmark birthday is celebrated with some a party, beers and usually a dreadful hangover. But as my 40th approached I'd worked out that most of my closest family were overseas on their holidays that week, leaving me wondering what to do. I couldn't face being in work for it, so I thought I'd head east for some bird photography, and drag Dad along too. Afterall, he celebrates his Birthday the day before mine and has been couped up in his house for months hiding from the hideous winter.

Rather than aim for the usual coastal location, I chose to stay in land a bit, in Fakenham. Only a dozen miles from the coast should the mood take us, but right next to the Hawk And Owl Trust's Sculthorpe Moor reserve, which is a spot I had visited before, but wanted to revisit, especially after helping the Trust out with some images recently.

After a remarkably easy run we arrived at the reserve, on my Birthday (I'd opened my cards before setting off), and we wandered down through the woods towards the hide, overlooking the extensive reedbeds. It was quite windy and the light wasn't great, but the view was promising and there were plenty of birds feeding from the stations either side of the hide.

Didn't take long to spot a flock of bramblings, which immediately became a target, and proved challenging, as they tended to fly straight on to the table, or down to the ground, littered with sunflower seed. Not particularly attractive.

Patience yielded results though, and eventually I managed to get shots of both a male and female perched in one of the trees.

Such colourful birds, and striking with the dark heads and flashes of bright yellow in flight.

Also providing entertainment was a pair of bank voles, darting out to grab seeds, before hurtling back into the vegetation at the slightest hint of danger.

All the while though, I kept an eye out across the reeds, as the one thing that really attracted me to Sculthorpe was the chance of photographing marsh harriers. I had a few shots already; usually chance encounters though I'd managed some from the visit back in 2010. But I hoped the site might yield more sightings and after a while, I finally spotted one, a male flying in quite high up.

His presence brought the female out too, and she flew much closer to us, giving fantastic views as she slowly scoured the reeds below.

As harriers often do though, they both dropped down and out of sight, and we were left watching the smaller birds again. Being April, the weather was rather changeable, and just as the sun looked like it was breaking through, it poured down. With the sun appearing again, we were treated to a fabulous double rainbow across the reserve and I joked to Dad that it'd be great to see one of the harriers fly now, against that backdrop. Well guess what. Enter stage left, the male marsh harrier, and, lit up by the emerging sunshine, he flew right across the rainbows. Fab!

Just as the buzz of seeing that had died down, one of the birders in the hide spotted a barn owl hunting, and boy did that give us a show! Quartering the reeds, it suddenly changed direction and flew right at us in the hide!

Maybe it'd seen one of the photos of the bank vole on Dad's camera and was trying for that, but it came so close I couldn't fit it in the frame, and it only veered off when one of the togs in the hide clipped his lens on the hide window frame.

The sunlight was very harsh on the owl's pale feathers, so I initially thought I'd ruined the shots, but Lightroom and Elements recovered the shots incredibly well.

Not a bad treat for my Birthday I thought, and that continued when we headed to a pub, recommended by Lin at the Hawk & Owl Trust - she was hoping to join us later after meeting for a chat in the hide already.

The Sculthorpe Mill - gorgeous pub / hotel, on a river, beside open countryside. Beautiful garden too, serving a great pint of Abbott ale and the food was top drawer too. The only downside came when I received a message from Lin, that they were about to release an osprey on the reserve, and we couldn't go see it, as our food was on the way. Apparently it had got into difficulty when trying to fish at a local fish farm but was lucky to be rescued, checked over and released.

When Lin did arrive at the pub later, with a few friends, the hawk expert who had had the task of releasing the female osprey told us how remarkably strong it had been - and had pushed itself away from him as he tried to hold her, commenting on how heavy she was too. A successful release, so a very happy ending there.

After an entertaining evening, we headed back to the B&B in Fakenham for a much needed kip, to recharge for the next day. I have to recommend Erika's B&B. Super value, great location and the breakfasts were just the ticket!

I had planned to return to Sculthorpe the following afternoon, after taking a drive around the area, just to see what was around. Never know what you might find. And within a few miles of the drive, we had seen some brown hares and also a fair few grey partridges.

Both obviously didn't like the look of me, and legged it, though I managed some half decent shots prior to their disappearing acts.

The weather seemed to be a bit clearer over the coast, so we drove that way, and a spur of the moment decision proved to be a stroke of fortune for the remainder of the trip. Heading to an area where I knew harriers roosted, we quickly spotted a pair chasing one another. They were distant, but fascinating to watch.

The light was terrible where we had chosen to watch from, and even when one flew right over us, the shots were rather disappointing. Wanting something better, I suggested to Dad that we look for a spot maybe closer to the action, but definitely with the sun in a more favourable direction, and, moments later we'd found just such a place. And within seconds of getting out the car, we saw a male harrier hover momentarily, in perfect light with a blue sky behind.

So where are the pictures you might ask? Erm, there aren't any, as hand-holding the bazooka isn't easy and I missed the focus - leaving it hunting for long enough to lose the harrier from view. I was furious and blamed the camera of course. Never me... But thankfully this spot we'd picked proved to be a gem, and the male powered away from the reedbed, over us and off into the fields beyond.

Still hand-held, but this time I nailed the focus, and got the reward.

With the weather improving and frequent views of the harriers, we stayed put. I'd never seen harriers so closely, especially in such great light.

By early afternoon though, the action seemed to subside a touch, and we fancied a change of scenery. It was sunny, we were on holiday and there was a pub down the road called the Lifeboat Inn, with 2 pints of Wherry with our names on! Irresistible! We even managed to sit out the front in the sunshine.

A visit to Thornham harbour proved worthwhile with views of a black-tailed godwit glowing in one of the channels as it fed, and returning to the harriers later provided views of a pair of them chasing each other high above us.

The sun was still out and I started to think about barn owls, so we headed to an area where I've had success with them in recent years and waited. Amusingly, Dad seemed to be weighed down with the camera hanging from his neck, so I suggested he ought to put it in the car for a bit, and I'd not finished suggesting it when I clocked a barn owl hunting right behind him!

Dad scuttled off to get to a spot giving him a bit of cover, while I scrambled to get my gear on the tripod.

Maybe a memo had gone out to the local barn owls about our Birthdays, as this one put on another fantastic performance, hunting only a few yards in front of us in gorgeous sunshine.

At one point, it was so close the sound of my shutter clicking attracted its attention.

And I only just got it in the frame moments later when it flew even closer!

What a fantastic day - ended as before at the Sculthorpe Mill, for fine beer and grub once again.

With it being only a short break, I had planned to head back early on the Saturday, but a cloudless morning soon changed my mind, and we headed back to the harriers once more. A female was busy chasing a common buzzard high over the marshes, while the pair of kestrels nesting up the road were whizzing around, hunting over the farmland nearby.

The sunshine sadly brought problems with heat haze, and despite having stunning views of the harriers overhead, most shots came out soft. Not all though, thankfully...

I certainly achieved my goal of getting a few better images!

Thirsty work though, and the lure of the Lifeboat was again too much to resist, with it being even warmer out the front on the benches than on the first visit. The harbour was fairly quiet, as was the one at Brancaster, though the pot of prawns and crayfish tails from the hut made a tasty treat to end a wonderful break in Norfolk, and a great way to celebrate reaching 40!