Wednesday 30 December 2015

A Local Diver, A Hoopoe And Some Shorties, At Last

The weather of late has been truly horrid. I can count the number of clear, sunny and calm days on half of one hand, and they seem to be landing on days when I am committed to doing something other than wildlife photography. The relentless windy conditions have called a halt to my feeding station on the local farm after one particularly gusty morning made my hide look like Mary Poppins' umbrella, and since taking it down, I've not had any chance to put it back up, that is if it still goes up...

Thankfully a great northern diver has decided to stay a while on a reservoir that is quite close to home, so I took advantage of a couple of hours one afternoon when the clouds broke, to see it fishing near the dam end of Upper Bittell.

It seemed quite unusual in the way it dived. Most divers I've seen tend to sink down into the water, gracefully. This one is more akin to a shag or comorant in that it actually leaps slightly to dive down. Perhaps because it is young, though it also seemed to spend a fair amount of time with its beak open, which made me wonder if it had some sort of breathing issue. Ever the optimist...

Good to see though and it had no concerns with me being on the bank nearby, even when a friend arrived and his dog wanted to play ball! The diver would drift out to the middle of the lake, preen and then head back to the edge where the great-crested grebes were fishing, to join in.

Unfortunately the lake has quite steep sides, so it is impossible (without being a member of the club there) to get any low-level shots. I asked some years ago if I could join and was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn't wanted. Their loss.

In a slightly more accessible area, a landscaped quarry not far from Hinksford (Staffs) a rather more exotic bird has made its home. A hoopoe, something I've not seen in the UK for years and tempted me over on a day forecast to be dry, which of late is unusual. Finding the bird was easy as there was a local on site and he'd seen it moments before I arrived.

Initially it was feeding in a fenced off area, and it was here that we managed to get some decent views as it preened.

In doing so, it would occasionally stretch its wings and raise that fantastic crown.

I had hoped it might pose on a stretch of the fence line, but it chose to fly out and on to the grassy slopes, where it continued to feed, pausing after any large grubs were unearthed and wolfed down, for a short doze. Although wary of the growing band of photographers and birders watching it, it wasn't put off its feeding. It actually seemed to be watching people as they wandered around, before getting back to the business of rooting out large grubs.

On a rare sunny day when I wasn't busy, I made my way to Cossington Meadows, a place I have been to before for the short-eared owls. Annoyingly this time, despite the area being fairly quiet in terms of people wandering around (perhaps because of how muddy it was), I failed to take any shots for much of the day, and wished I'd visited the hoopoe again instead. Or gone to the pub with my brother, who called about midday... Still, in the end I was just pleased to see the owls, even if they did appear just after the decent light had faded and failed to come particularly close.

So that wraps up 2015. The year has flown by. I just hope 2016 provides as many wonderful memories and experiences with wildlife as this one, but is perhaps a little bit drier!

Thursday 19 November 2015

A Photography Feeding Station

One of the benefits of socialising in country pubs is that you can become friends with local landowners, usually farmers. Unlike Scotland where the general public have a right to roam pretty much anywhere, here in England permission from landowners is required to access areas, and more so if anything specific is to be rigged up.

Casual conversations with folks who work on the land can also have benefits, especially if they know you're interested in wildlife, and hence often offer up snippets of invaluable information about what they have seen whilst out and about.

As a result of such a conversation, and knowing the landowner, I am currently in the process of setting things up for photography of the wildlife on a farm. Having spent some time simply watching the site and noting what is present and where, I was able to install my one-man hide, which is basically a chair with a folding tent over the top. I soon remembered why I wasn't a fan of it, what with the back-ache from contorting myself to get in and out of it, the lack of any spare space in it, and the wet bottom after a night's rainfall.

Out with the old, and in with a new spacious pop-up hide, which is far better. Not only can I almost stand up in it, there's room for 2 or maybe 3 people inside. So my comfort sorted, what about the wildlife I hear you say. Well, with the oak trees all around, there are plenty of natural food sources for birds like jays and wood pigeons at the moment, but I had noticed good numbers of smaller woodland birds too, and needed to bring them closer to me.

With freedom to wander around the farm, I soon gathered enough bits of wood to create some perches, for a more natural-looking shot, but still chose to rig up a feeder stand beside them, as the initial beacon to attract the birds. Remembering that I had a spare post for this, all I needed were some feeders and seed. I figured that a simple seed feeder coupled with a suet-ball holder would suffice, and hope they'd spot the seed sprinkled nearby when waiting for a turn on the feeders.

The papers always see the downsides of spending too long surfing the internet, but one of the benefits is finding sites that can be bookmarked and used for future projects. One such site is Swallow Aquatics, who I found initially when looking for pond treatments (to try to manage the slime that builds up in my wildlife pond) but remembered that they also stock a good selection of products for bird food and feeders. Being on someone else's property, I want to minimise any mess I create, so went for some of the no-mess mix, some suet pellets and some general mix seed, plus a large metal seed feeder.

Products ordered and only a couple of days later, I had contact from Swallow Aquatics and also the courier to say when the parcel would be delivered. I do appreciate it when companies and couriers are precise in terms of delivery times, to avoid waiting around for hours for a delivery. I was given a time slot and the package arrived as stated. Now I had to hope the birds were as prompt!

Post hammered into the ground, feeders hooked up and filled, and it was then a case of sitting in the hide and waiting. The first arrival was a coal tit, followed soon after by a nuthatch. Both were interested in the seed mix, and the flight of these adventurers soon encouraged others to follow, with house sparrows, blue and great tits, dunnocks, robins and wrens calling in.

I had wondered if the fact that the feeding station wasn't particularly close to the hedge or trees might put the birds off, but they happily come and go, sometimes sitting for minutes at a time feeding. And, with the feeders occupied, as hoped, the birds waiting have noticed the seed put out on the natural perches, and take advantage!

Highlights so far, and it's only been in place for a matter of days, have been a rather mucky-looking female great spotted woodpecker.

A goldfinch...

The nuthatch, which was one of the first visitors and is such a poser...

And a jackdaw, which like all corvids soon realised I was nearby despite the hide, and took flight. Clever birds...

So you might be forgiven for asking why I have gone to all this trouble to set up a feeding station when I have previously blogged about the diverse array of birds I get in my back garden? Well you'd be right for asking, and the answer lies in what else is here on this farm.

You see, the reason I chose to rig up the feeders is partly to provide additional food for the birds on this farm, but also to provide me with something to photograph while the main subjects for this project sit nearby, usually doing very little (at the moment).

A pair of little owls. Something I most definitely do not get in my garden. The ultimate goal for the project is to be able to get some varied images of this pair of owls, and I am employing various tactics to do this. However these take time, and to relieve my boredom, the woodland birds are a most welcome distraction.

If you wish to follow any progress with the owls, please keep an eye on my Twitter feed (@petewalkden1973) though I will of course be blogging about them soon.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Local Hobbies

Summer appears to be over, and it's been a while since I saw a swallow darting across the skies in search of insects. They along with the subject of this post should be making their way across Europe and down to warmer climates, probably South Africa. Thankfully, before they left, they provided me with hours of entertainment and hundreds of fantastic images.

I am referring to the hobby. This migrant bird of prey spends its summer here in the UK where it breeds, before departing south again, usually in October. The adults tend to leave first, whilst their offspring hang around a little longer, perhaps to build up stamina for the long flight, and also to hone their hunting skills, necessary for life in general.

Back in May I marvelled at the returning adults as they hunted in numbers over the marshes in Oxfordshire. They soon dispersed to set up territories, and I was distracted by other subjects over the summer months. However, I always keep an eye on a few local reserves where I have seen them before, just in case, and as it happened, a hobby started to favour one such reserve early in September. It didn't take me long to go for a look and after a bit of a wait, the hobby suddenly appeared, whizzing overhead at speed to grab a dragonfly.

The reserve is called Marsh Lane and is a private location sited not far from Birmingham Airport. It's a good spot for dragonflies, so I am not surprised the hobby frequented it so often. On my first visits, the hobby would appear for a short period, generally hunting anywhere on the reserve. This made it tricky to predict where was best to stand, and invariably wherever I chose, the hobby would go to the other side.

I say "the" hobby, which is incorrect. At the start of September there were definitely two hobbies around. One adult and the other a juvenile. The adults have a brick red area on their underside (called red trousers sometimes) and their beaks are yellow with a dark tip.

Juveniles lack the coloured underside and their beaks are a blue/grey colour. There are other differences of course, but these are most apparent when looking at the subject through your bins or at the image on the reverse of your camera.

Towards the middle of September, the adult disappeared and only the juvenile remained. It would hunt initially for short bursts, of maybe 15 to 20 minutes at a time, before resting in one of the many trees around the reserve.

When it had filled its crop (the muscular pouch near its throat) it would go to the far side of the reserve and sit in a tree, from which it'd drop down to grab any dragonflies perched up on the reeds below. Unfortunately this perch was impossible to view from anywhere on the reserve without venturing off paths, so when the hobby headed over there, I knew it was time to leave.

As the days went by though, the time spent hunting increased, as the bird became stronger and more experienced at it. While there were still swallows around, I never saw the hobby make any attempt to catch one, staying focused on the insects instead.

By late September the hobby had started to favour one part of the reserve, which wasn't surprising as there always seemed to be dragonflies around. Probably because the stream ran in parallel, meaning the tiny insects the dragonflies were preying upon were in abundance in that area.

I had also ditched the idea of trying to photograph the hobby using the camera on the tripod. As smooth as the UniqBall head is, it limits how high the lens can point, and I just felt I had more chance if I held the lens instead. I'm not built like Arnold Schwarzenegger so can't wield the 500mm for hours at a time, but I found I could hold it up in bursts long enough to get sequences as the hobby hurtled by.

Though my back did ache after a couple of sessions when the hobby hunted continuously for over 2 hours! It was a good work-out for it and me!

I was amused at one point when my quiet afternoon enjoying the antics of the hobby was interrupted by the reserve land management team who were cutting and baling the hay from the meadows. Initially I thought that the session would be ended; the hobby scared away, but if anything the hobby hunted for longer. I think perhaps the disturbance from the grass being cut threw more insects into the air, and gave the hobby more targets. I found myself trying to follow the bird as it darted between the tractors!

According to the reserve's records, the hobby was last seen on the 8th October when it headed south mid-morning. By then though, I had amassed more photographs of it to know what to do with! A wonderful, exciting bird to watch, and I hope it succeeds with its migration. Maybe I'll photograph it in years to come, if it returns to the same area to start its own family.

Now I need to find something else to point the camera at for the winter...

Sunday 4 October 2015

Weston Turville Osprey

An unusually short blog post from me for once. Today I zipped down the M40 to a small reservoir at Weston Turville in Buckinghamshire where a juvenile osprey has been fishing for a couple of weeks.

I managed to time my visit perfectly, as I'd just walked up the small slope to the end of the water when I saw the osprey was already out hunting. It dived at the far end, but fortunately for me (and the numerous spectators) it missed. So then it circled higher once more, and powered down towards where I was standing.

After flying overhead, it followed the edge of the water, briefly hovered before acrobatically flipping over and diving into the water. Pictures speak louder and far more clearly than words here...

With a firm grip on the fish, it was time to leave and find a tree to perch up in, to enjoy lunch!
If only all wildlife encounters were so time-efficient!

Monday 21 September 2015

Mull, Late Summer - Week Two

Our second week on Mull started with the sort of weather predicted for the first. Grim and wet. My early morning potter around the area yielded nowt but a few bedraggled-looking buzzards, and not close enough to bother photographing. We saw the family of white-tailed eagles as usual, though I don't think I could ever get used to seeing such huge birds on a daily basis, and round at Loch Na Keal, we spotted an otter dozing on the shore. Alas, the weather closed in while I waiting for it to do something, and during the subsequent deluge, the otter swam off!

The day ended with a pretty high tide, swamping the area I normally watch the small waders on, and in the gloom, I found interest with the swallows buzzing around, in particular the fledglings being fed by their attentive and energetic parents.

Not quite the same light as I enjoyed a similar scene over in Lincolnshire some time back, but something at least from the day.

Another wet morning followed, though I had more luck, and spent some time with a young buzzard that sat on a rock, oblivious of me nearby.

The sight of a male hen harrier brightened the gloom. Never really close, but I had good enough views to see the plumage on him, and guessed he might be a young male, starting to get those ghostly colours of an adult at last, but with traces of his juvenile colours still showing on his back.

With each visit, we pick up on the populations of birds. Some years have seen masses of chaffinches, others stonechats, and I think the pied wagtails were most noticeable last time. This year it was apparent that the hooded crows had enjoyed a bumper year, perhaps as a result of the golden eagles suffering a poor breeding season? With them all around, it would have been rude to ignore any opportunites to get images...

A couple of cars parked up alerted us to something, and peering over the rocks beside the loch we saw what was being looked at. One of the adult white-tailed eagles had delivered a food parcel to the juvenile. She was sat on the shore tearing into whatever was handed over, while the adult sat close by, on a small island. After a while she flew further along the loch, and the adult followed shortly after. Thankfully the weather improved and by late afternoon, the sun was out, allowing us to watch the high tide on the marshes.

The rising water must have forced the numerous rodents in the marsh to swim to dry land, and this made things easy for the local birds. We watched as the hen harriers, crows and even the gulls picked off the unfortunate creatures. Also caught out by the tide were a group of sheep, and they eventually had to make a swim for it. Most were capable, but we were concerned for a small lamb at the back as it struggled against the currents. Thankfully it scrambled to shore and they all trudged past where we were parked, looking well, sheepish!

As dusk fell, the harriers strayed closer. But with the clouds of midges in the still conditions, I couldn't sit with the car windows open. I managed some shots as one ringtail flew past, but it managed to do so at a level below a line of grass!

My morning drive initially began with disappointment, when I noticed a hen harrier sat on a fence post right next to the road, but it flew off before I could get close. On climbing over the rocks to see where it'd gone, I put it up again from a hidden perch, and it vanished off into the hills. Then as I drove along the back of the loch, I thought I had seen a shag sat beside the loch, facing away from me. But something didn't look quite right, and as I got closer, the bird turned its head. Not a shag... but the juvenile white-tailed eagle, and with enough momentum, I could turn off the ignition and rolled the car to a stand-still alongside. She didn't fly off, seemingly more interested in what the retreating tide might leave behind.

Holding the camera and lens across the passenger seat is tricky most times, due to the weight, but when excitement takes hold and the trembles begin, then it's even harder.

What a view! Just sat there, looking this way and that.

After a good five minutes, she took off, and I assumed she'd fly back to the nest area. She didn't. She landed again, only this time even closer to the road! I started the car and slowly approached, again turning the engine off to be as quiet as possible. I couldn't believe she was that close. Through my camera, I could barely fit her in the frame, so had to take the converter off for more space for a shot.

It's not every day that you have such a view from the side of the car, so I tried to absorb it as much as possible.

Failing to see anything again, she then flew along the loch and landed behind some trees beside the shore. I walked down and peered through the branches. There was no clear shot available, so I just stood and watched her for a few minutes. When you're that close, you really get a feel for how massive they are, even at such a young age.

My final views of her were when she relocated to a paddock, and I grabbed a few images with a better backdrop. The sound of a tractor approaching put her up, and she drifted out of sight over the hills. Wow. What a morning.

The remainder of the day was spent up in the hills towards Carsaig, where we watched both species of eagles, hen harriers and what I thought was a massive hoverfly on my car. Turned out to be a giant horsefly, so I'm glad that didn't decide to bite me! Would have needed A&E treatment.

After the excitement of seeing the eagle so close up, I had high hopes for the second week, but things went strangely quiet. I barely got a shot on one day, with some greenshank that I was about to photo being scared off by a farmer. I managed to get some otter shots the following day, but with it being very wet that day, Dad didn't accompany me so missed out.

The penultimate day was again lacking in opportunities. In the morning sunshine, I watched a peregrine pluck an unfortunate dove, but was a bit far off for anything more. Made me sad though, thinking of the family that I had been following locally, that were poisoned. At least the falcons up in Mull don't have to contend with such brain-dead imbeciles as those in England.

But with nothing much else to photo in the day, I tried testing the high ISO capabilities of the 7Dmk2, and as expected, at 10,000 the images were... terrible! Oh well. One last day on the island, what might be in store?

Well first off, we had our second trip on Mull Charters, and despite the low cloud and occasional spell of drizzle, the eagles were on fantastic form, coming out five times to us.

And it was remarkably calm too. The boat may as well have been in dry-dock, as there was barely a ripple, and this made things far easier to track the eagles as they descended.

I've said it before, but each trip with Martin seems to yield something new, and makes the boat trip hard to overlook when I'm on Mull.

As we climbed back on to the harbour wall, bid farewell to Martin and Alex, I had a look at the skies and suggested to Dad that we try for the golden eagles. Parking up, we kept an eye on the hills and hoped. It kept raining on and off, so the bags of sweets in the car took a hammering while we waited. Then over the hill tops I made out a shape. Too big for one of the buzzards around there, and following behind was another. Goldies!

Scanning the grassy slopes of the hills, the eagles were obviously out hunting, and after we relocated to a closer position, we got glorious views as the pair used the on-shore breeze to hang in the air, taking their time to study the ground below for movement.

Of course this gave us time to grab masses of images.

After they drifted away and over the hills, I turned to Dad and couldn't help but grin. What amazing views! I was tempted to leave, but something inside told me to hang on... Turning round, the eagles appeared again, only this time even closer.

Not quite frame-fillers, but close enough for me to get that buzz of excitement again.

They even appeared to study us for a few seconds, before continuing on their way.

The sun started to break through the low clouds, revealing some blue sky, which tempted the pair of eagles to soar upwards and in a few moments they were lost from view. My grin was making my face hurt.

Heading back for a meal at the pub for the last time, I glanced across Dad into the field beyond. It appeared to be a sparrowhawk at first glance, then I saw the white rump. Hen harrier! Thankfully, there was no other car on the road, and I could brake and jump out for some pics.

With the sun now shining, the ringtail looked stunning as it quartered the field.

What an incredible day. White-tailed and golden eagles, and now a hen harrier. Mull sure has a way of making amends for a quiet spell! The meal in the Craignure Inn tasted extra special that evening, but the next morning it was time to leave.

Sat in the car in the queue to the ferry was a strange affair. I never want to leave the island, and the fact that my friends Steve and Tracy were on the arriving ferry made it worse. Steve managed to briefly greet us as he arrived, and tried to persuade us to stay for another week, but we had to be back unfortunately. As usual, Mull had delivered the goods, and made me yearn to return as soon as possible.