Wednesday 12 June 2013

3 Day Weekend: Powys

Not quite such an early start for this as the Somerset trip, but as Dad and I trundled over the border into Wales, we were hoping the clouds would part and provide a bit of light. Pulling into the car park at Gilfach the farm looked a rather gloomy place, though our spirits were lifted upon seeing Steve and Ann lurking in the courtyard. They had been holidaying in the area for a few days, enjoying some glorious sunshine by all accounts. The local forecast claimed the cloud would be burned off by about 10am, so we set up for the redstarts and hoped.

An annoying one-eyed robin continued to chase the female off whenever she tried to come down for food, but even with that, she managed to appear long enough at times for pics. The male flicked his tail in the trees, dropping down to feed on the mealworms. Apparently their first nest had failed, but seemed to be trying again.

At the back of the courtyard another pair were nesting, and we wandered over to watch them, with Steve trying to keep the greedy great tits away from the food put out, by hand feeding them! They even landed on my camera at times to get fed.

A cuckoo calling nearby briefly distracted us to go look for it, but by the time we reached the area a pair of birders had seen it, the cuckoo had flown far down the valley. Nevermind. A yellowhammer called nearby too, kites and buzzards soared overhead, and at the bottom of the slope a family of mistle thrushes hopped about looking for grubs. The view was worth the detour alone.

Back to the courtyard for a few more shots of the redstarts, before we all fancied a change of scene. Steve had mentioned a desire to get photos of whinchats and I suggested we try a spot I found last summer in the Elan Valley itself. Aside from a few suicidal sheep along the way, we briefly stopped when I spotted a whinchat on a wire fence, but it flew off before we could get any cameras on it.

Moments later we were parking up at the location where I'd had success before, and within seconds of scanning the fences, I spotted a male whinchat! To say Steve was chuffed was an understatement, and he scuttled round for a closer view, grabbing shots as he went.

Once I'd got all my gear out, I followed. Gorgeous little birds.

By now the sun had finally burned away the clouds, and we were bathed in sunshine. Not wanting anything else of the day, we set about trying to second guess where the whinchat would go to next, and wait. Rarely worked, and we had to creep over, hoping it wouldn't fly off.

There seemed to be at least 2 pairs at the location, with the male we generally saw singing constantly. It turned out later, that there were more of them, including some fledglings, further up the hill from where we'd been watching.

Steve also seemed strangely drawn to a sheep which was watching us from the top of a hill, and even ventured across a bog to get closer, claiming he was trying for the whinchat which was nearby. The sheep seemed ever so disappointed when it again appeared over the horizon to find me stood below, and gave me a baaaaad stare. Steve asked me to take this shot of his woolly admirer, for a keepsake...

Apparently he's been after a whinchat photo for over 15 years, so to finally get some, was a real treat, and being the gent that he is, he treated Dad and me to a meal at the local pub in Rhayader. Wish we'd stayed over, as the food was fab and they were serving a very nice pint of Doom Bar.

As usual, both Steve and Ann had us in stitches over the meal, and it was a real drag to head back home again. But what a super day, in great company with some fine subjects too.

3 Day Weekend: Otmoor Again!

Sunday was supposed to be a bit cloudier, and after the long day on Saturday, a glance past the curtains at the overcast conditions allowed me to take a lie in without feeling like I was wasting any good weather. I was "on call" too that day, as Kate had mentioned that she might need me to help her set up for her Gardening World Live Show exhibit at the NEC. Just before midday, I checked with her, and she was fine, saying she'd welcome our help at the close of the show later in the week. The clouds outside were starting to break up, and I gathered my gear. Initially I had considered going to Upton Warren, but the lure of hobbies at Otmoor won out, and I was soon trundling down the lane to the reserve.

Again it was cooler there than expected, so I found the hobbies weren't flying much, which was rather annoying. Plenty of red kites around again, being chased by lapwings and the odd redshank.

I decided to lurk near the metal gate and see what presented itself to me. Lugging the camera gear around is tiring and hurts my shoulder, so if I can find an excuse for staying where I am, I do.

Was a good move. Something was moving at speed down the track towards me. Having forgotten my bins, I focused the camera on it and realised it was a brown hare, lolloping along at some pace. The view was slightly obscured by the long grass, but I started to take some pics as it got closer. Thinking I was about to get a great shot, I held off on the shutter in case it heard, when it suddenly stopped anyway. It looked in my direction, then turned and legged it. Damn, must have heard me.

Standing back from the camera, I saw a reflection in the back of it. Two birders stood on the path in plain sight behind me, pointing at the now distant hare. I need an eye-rolling smiley for this moment.

Back to photographing other things, with linnets feeding from the ground and perching on the wooden fence. I like them - the males are quite striking with their red-feathers. They were fluttering round in small flocks making the most of seed provided by the RSPB.

Then out of nowhere, a dove caught my attention, as it flew in front of me, and landed on a metal gate. A double-take and I realised it was a turtle dove! Fantastic.

After I'd taken a few shots, it dropped down into the long grass out of sight to feed, at which point another tog (Hi Andy!) wandered over and joined me. Like me, he was after hobbies, but when the dove flew back up and perched on the fence, he took full advantage.

As is often the case, the sight of photographers focused on something attracts more, and we were soon joined by a number of interested folk, who like us, were amazed that the normally shy turtle dove was posing for us all.

After posing, it fluttered down to the ground, and wandered round, feeding on the seed, mooching in amongst the grass before settling in the open on the path, to enjoy the warmth from the sunshine. Remarkable really, given how they aren't normally seen.

When it finally headed off, we tried for some more hobby shots, though they rarely ventured close. One performed a seemingly suicidal dive into the grass for something, which was exciting to watch.

I stayed late hoping to see hobbies becoming more active in the afternoon warmth, but they stayed miles off. I could also hear a cuckoo and a pair of grasshopper warblers, but none showed. So home once more to get ready for the third day of fun.

3 Day Weekend: Somerset Levels

After missing out on a rare sunny Bank Holiday weekend, I was relieved to see good weather forecast for a few days over the last weekend, and after arranging to cash in on some of the time owed for the Monday off, I set about planning some trips out and about.

A favourite spot at this time of year (and sometimes a little earlier if the weather permits) are the Somerset Levels. There are two reserves either side of a narrow lane; Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall. Both provide chances of seeing marsh harriers, hobbies, cuckoos and also bitterns which breed there and as Dad hadn't seen or heard a bittern to date, it was here that we aimed for on the Saturday.

It was quite a shock to his system, getting up for a 6am pick-up but he was ready when I rocked up, and a trouble-free drive down the M5 lead to the car park in good time, to get a space before the crowds could gather. As is typical with the area at this time of year, the walk into Ham Wall was accompanied by a fabulous chorus of bird song; goldcrests, warblers, blackcaps, all manner of tits and the occasional annoyed-sounding heron drifting over.

Before we reached the main viewing platform, we found a small group of hopeful birders staring at the reeds on the reserve. Apparently there is a pair of little bitterns nesting, and had been seen at 5:15am! Don't think even I'd have got up early enough to see that. After it failed to reappear in the 5 mins we stood chatting, and neither did the otters or the kingfishers spotted that morning, we headed off to see what could be seen and heard around the reed beds. Stopping briefly at the main viewing platform, we saw a pair of great white egrets in the distance flying along. After the Grimley one, I didn't bother taking any pics.

With the little bitterns being such a prized bird on site, the RSPB had closed off quite a large area of the reserve to prevent disturbance, so we wandered around the open part, hoping to see something interesting. Didn't take long for Dad to hear his first bittern booming, and like me, he found it to be an amazing sound. Amusing too, when hearing one later which didn't seem to be too bothered to complete the full set of booms, with the last one sounding more like a depressed groan!

Along the side of the reeds are some pieces of corrugated metal, and I hoped that they might harbour some reptiles, warming beneath. The first two that I gently raised up, with Dad stood ready behind me with his camera, yielded nothing but ants, but the third one held a real treat. A slow-worm.

I've not seen one of these properly since the steps on Skomer, and back then we were carrying luggage so I couldn't get a photo. They're understandably shy and soon retreated to the safety of the undergrowth, but it was fab to see, and with my macro lens, I'd bagged a few shots of its head.

The distinctive call of a cuckoo tempted me to the far end of the lake, but it was in the woods beyond, and wouldn't come closer - seemed to be flying along the tree-line. And hobbies seemed to be scarce too. Dad had lagged behind somewhat and was behind a tree when a bittern flew over. Annoyed that he'd missed it, I suggested we walk around the pools to the main path where we'd have a good view of the reed beds. The vegetation was covered with numerous invertebrates, which became the focus of my macro gear while we waited for the birds to perform.

With nothing happening, I chose to tuck into a breakfast bar, which usually kick starts the action, and sure enough, one bite into it, I glanced up and spotted a bittern, flying over the trees towards us. Alerting Dad to it, we started firing off shots as it slowly approached, circled and started to drop down.

At this point, a second one rose from the reeds to join it.

They both circled briefly before one returned to the cover of the reeds and the other rose up and over our heads, beyond the trees behind us and out of sight. But by then we'd taken a good number of shots, and Dad had broken his duck on seeing bitterns as well as hearing them!

Wandering back to the main viewing area, after a bite to eat, we again hoped for a sighting of the little bitterns and again failed to see them. Over the road and into Shapwick Heath, where Cetti's warblers seemed to be in every patch of willow, though as with Ham Wall, they didn't sing out in the open. The hides by now were full with folks out enjoying the warm sunny day, and we plonked ourselves down on the benches along the main path, taking in views of whatever flew over, or crawled too close.

Bitterns were busy flying between the reed beds, as were marsh harriers, though after recent events in Norfolk, we chose to watch rather than photo these. It was mid afternoon already and with the breeze, heat of the sunshine, early start and quite a bit of walking, we were both feeling a bit knackered, so decided to call it a day. The drive home was quite a challenge as I was really tired, and had to call into some services for a Red Bull to wake me up. I soon washed that taste from my mouth on getting back, when we called into a local pub for a deserved pint. A great first day out.

Sunday 2 June 2013

RSPB Otmoor

This time of year does rather spoil you for choice of where to go, and having seen a few redstarts and pied flies at Gilfach, I fancied something from the bird of prey menu. Inviting Dad along, I headed down the M40 to Oxfordshire, to an RSPB reserve called Otmoor. I've been before, and enjoyed some success with hobbies, which are now back in the UK in good numbers.

Within moments of walking over the bridge to the main part of the reserve, we could see several hobbies chasing insects over the pools near the path, so we set up and crossed our fingers, hoping to get some close views.

There were certainly a good number of hobbies around. I counted almost 20 at one point.

Seeing them was one thing, but getting shots, especially when they were hunting low down, well, that was something else.

I found that using just a centre focal point was best, as anything expanded tended to pick up the background, even when I was "on" the bird.

It was a lovely day, but while that meant we weren't freezing our nuts off for once, the shots were generally a tad soft from the heat haze around.

Didn't stop me filling 3 cards, though I did leave enough room for a whitethroat on the wires on the way back to the car, and also a bit more room for a pint at the gorgeous Abingdon Arms pub up the road.

As is often the case with me, I wanted more of the same, so returned to Otmoor about a week later. Again the forecast was good, though when I arrived with just a bodywarmer and long-sleeved t-shirt on, I wasn't best pleased to find a cold, strong breeze blowing into my face. Brrr!

Less pleasing still was a distinct lack of hobbies. Walking up and down the path to keep warm, I heard a purring sound - a turtle dove. I've heard them before, and as usual, a search of the trees was fruitless. Then, another 'tog spotted it, further along the treeline, on a stump.

First one I've seen properly, and while the view wasn't great (branches blowing around in between), it was still a good start to the day.

The remainder of the day was spent trying different spots for hobbies, and failing to get anything much. I spent quite a bit of time with my macro lens out, as the place is a hotspot for insects.

With the afternoon stretching into early evening, I thought I ought to head back, and wandered back to the bridge, stopping for a last look across the marshes. Great move, as a hobby flew over the trees behind and up over my head, hanging in the breeze, to look down at me!

Terrific, and moments later, along the path back to the car park, another one came over low down too.

Perhaps I should have stayed near the car park instead of strolling off across the reserve!

Moments like those make the hours stood shivering worthwhile, and the decision to leave even harder. Maybe next weekend...

Gilfach Farm

According to the news, we're about to start summer. News to me, as I've not really seen much of spring yet, with this last week been a great example. One minute it's warm, the next you're firing up the central heating again.

At least some of the spring birds have returned, and to see some favourites, Dave Hutton contacted me and we agreed to meet at Gilfach Farm. I'd been out the night before, so expected to see Dave waiting when I arrived, but the farm was empty, and strolling into the courtyard, I saw a tawny owl making off with something it had robbed from a nest. A quick look around and I could see siskins and redpolls, and then a flick of red in the tree above me, gave away the presence of a male common redstart.

One of the reasons for going, and once Dave had joined me, we were soon taking shots of the male and female, plus an obliging nuthatch.

Pleasing to see was a second pair of redstarts nesting at the back of the courtyard, and Pip had already got them pretty much feeding from his hand.

A movement in the wall caught my attention, and a cheeky-looking shrew appeared, and took advantage of some of the food laid on for the birds.

Down at the hide, there was a pair of pied flycatchers, and another pair of redstarts, plus more nuthatches.

On the river was a busy pair of dippers, though they'd both been ringed, which puts me off photographing them. Didn't matter, as I was taking enough of the migrants anyway.

Such a good spot for photographing these birds.

Along the river, I caught up with another dipper, minus any rings, but the light was very harsh.

And I could hear several cuckoos around, though none would come close.

A brief trip to the Elan Valley yielded only distant views of a whinchat, so it was back to Brum, via the winding roads east!