Tuesday 12 May 2015

RSPB Otmoor For A Day

My visit to Otmoor started with me heading to Marsh Lane, after seeing some reports from there of a pair of hobbies being seen hunting over the causeway. However, as I was trundling along the M42 motorway I saw the signs for the M40 and decided that Otmoor might also have some hobbies, and that there would probably be a fair bit more of interest there too. Decision made, I continued my drive south, and thought the omens might be good when a brown hare crossed the road in front of my car, just before reaching the car park.

The skies were a mix of blue and dark, menacing clouds, so I chose to don my Paramo jacket, just in case. The air was filled with the song of linnets, whitethroats, sedge warblers and wrens as I strolled down the entrance path, checking the ditch for any grass snakes along the way. And, just as I reached the bridge, my decision for the jacket was proved wise, when the heavens opened and it poured down! Thankfully it soon passed away in the breeze, and I set off along the path.

Greeting me initially was a common whitethroat who caught me out as I had my lens set for distance shots, but after a quick fumble under the lens cover, I was happily getting shots of him, as he hopped along the posts of the fence singing, and picking off spiders.

As he flew away I heard the unmistakeable purring sound of a turtle dove, from a usual spot for them it has to be said. I soon located it in a tree, and grabbed some shots. Not great light, but not to be sniffed at.

Flying over my head, it fluttered down to the area near the main gates, perhaps to feed on the seed thrown out by the RSPB volunteers. Making sure I didn't spook the bird, I approached cautiously taking shots through the gaps in the gate, only getting close after the dove had pottered off down the path somewhat, and out of sight.

Great to see and somewhat of a relief after the gauntlet they may have to take if their flight path goes via Malta...

Another distinctive call is that of the cuckoo, and I could make out a pair calling from two different areas. As I walked along, one flew right past me, chasing another, before heading out across the marshes into the distance. They weren't the first I had seen of the year, as they were in Norfolk, but I did spot my first swift; several of them in fact and whilst watching them, I clocked a hobby in the distance. Fab.

Deep in the shadows beside the path was a pair of garden warblers, busy collecting nesting material, and on the other side by the main marsh area, a pair of shovelers hurried out of the water; the male staring at me before flying off with his partner in tow.

The hedges were alive with small birds, such as long-tailed tits, goldfinches, blackcaps and sedge warblers, the latter singing loudly from the edge. Lovely to see and hear, and something that always reminds me of Spring.

I was about to go for a look out of the hide when a hobby buzzed past me low, and I found myself attempting to follow it, along the path away from the hide. It was low, but the top of the hedge was in the way and I soon lost it from view. Encouraging though, and a chat with a birder walking towards me, provided the info I wanted to hear. Lots of hobbies at the far end of the path.

He was right. Difficult to count as they move around so much, but maybe 10+ in the air. A fantastic sight, and one I was soon hooked on trying to photograph. Not that easy with these birds as they change direction so quickly and without much warning, but the expanded focus points on the 7Dmk2 helped immensely with tracking them in flight.

There also seemed to be plenty of flying insects for them to feed upon, and they were catching them every few seconds.

As I followed one individual with my camera I saw two large birds skimming the reeds in the viewfinder, and a refocus later realised I was watching a pair of common cranes! I burst off a few but with the distance and slight heat haze only managed record shots. Scanning the reeds revealed nothing more, so I just hoped they might appear again soon for another go.

Back on the hobbies again, though it didn't take long to be distracted again, first by all the common terns dancing around the skies, and then by a female marsh harrier!

After watching some in Norfolk recently, I was chuffed to see some much closer to home. She also seemed to be taking nesting material across the reeds, and promptly dropped down out of sight.

I had decided by now that I would stay here as long as I could, to enjoy the sight of the hobbies and perhaps see the cranes again. A birder who had been by the screen earlier strolled back and stopped for a chat. He had to leave but was gutted he'd not connected with the cranes, and joked that they'd probably appear as soon as he'd left. I told him not to worry and that I'd give him a shout if they did before he was out of my sight.

Literally seconds after he walked away, both the cranes burst up from the reeds. I shouted to the birder, who later admitted he thought I was doing a prank on him, and we both enjoyed views as the pair circled briefly, before heading off across the marsh.

Definitely my best views of common cranes, after seeing some at Slimbridge, Lakenheath and about a mile up over my house some years ago.

Thanking me for alerting him, the birder strolled off much happier, leaving me to focus once again on the hobbies. They would come close in waves, but trying to predict which ones might fly closest was a case of luck.

And trying not to be too distracted by the antics of the marsh harriers (yes, a second female had appeared by now) was also challenging. One seemed to have caught something and strayed into the range of the other female, who chased her off angrily.

Despite being stood for hours, I hadn't got anything really special from the session, and was about to head off to try another spot when a hobby headed towards me, the camera locked on, and without changing direction for once, the hobby lined up, caught, dismembered and then ate a damselfly on the wing. And I managed to get shots of the whole sequence with one high speed burst.

As clouds behind me started to build, I chose to wander back, as it's not a short walk from there. A red kite drifted past quite low, being mobbed by all manner of birds including corvids and lapwings.

Upon reaching the bridge area, I was again treated to fabulous views of the turtle dove as it fed from the ground, but was left cursing when a coot took offence to it, and chased it off. Miserable old coot.

The reserve had one last treat for me too, and it reminded me of Shetland. Drumming snipe. Several performing the strange flights. Never very close, but brought back some fond memories.

What a day I had enjoyed. And remarkably it had one last treat left. As I drove out of the site and through the lanes, I spotted a pair of 'togs photographing something over a gate. Pulling over I asked and was informed that there was a barn owl out hunting, and coming very close. I didn't need any persuasion to park up, grab the gear and have a go.

They weren't wrong! The barn owl was flying literally a few yards away at times.

Not the best background for some of the shots, but they are such a magical sight to enjoy.

And also the perfect end to what had been an unplanned, unexpected but quite unbelievably good day!

Sunday 10 May 2015

April Birthdays In Norfolk

A couple of years ago, to celebrate my 40th Birthday I thought it'd be a good idea to go to Norfolk for a few days, and share the time with Dad as his Birthday falls on the day before mine. We had a cracking short break and I wanted to repeat the trip, albeit for a week this time.

Instead of staying inland, we decided upon Wells-next-the-Sea as it's a good central location, and has a few decent pubs within walking distance. And after a slightly annoying diversion on the way there, we rocked up at Thornham harbour in good time.

It was sunny but the wind had an icy feel to it, and forced us to stand beside the Lifeboat Inn pub, after we'd taken a few shots of godwits, avocets and shelducks poking around in the mud.

On our last Springtime visit, we had been fortunate to find a great place to stand to watch marsh harriers, and after enjoying our first taste of Wherry for the trip, we tried again. This year though, I reckon Spring is about a fortnight late in wildlife terms, and where there had been a pair nesting before, there was just a roost in place. Lots of harriers around, but they tended to fly away from us each time they went hunting from the marsh.

We did get some decent views of a female though, and enjoyed watching them displaying to one another, flying high up, before diving down, swooping up, diving down some more, swooping up, and finally diving out of sight into the reeds. Interesting to see that the females seemed to be doing this frequently too.

The harriers also occasionally tried to hunt locally, even attacking the greylag geese, though they were slightly ambitious with that idea, with the geese merely flying or waddling away.

A drive through the lanes revealed good numbers of red-legged partridges and brown hares, plus quite a few Egyptian geese. I don't recall seeing many of these last time, though by this time of day the heat haze had put an end to any images of anything.

The first evening was spent watching a barn owl for a short while, at a usual spot. I wasn't expecting much but we actually got a great show, with the owl hunting right in front of us.

The day ended at a new pub (Bowling Green Inn), which Dad suggested we try after seeing a) how close it was to our digs and b) a menu on the wall of the cottage. It was a wise move, as they served Wherry and had a great selection of home-cooked meals, which as we discovered over the rest of the week, were delicious!

One of my goals for this trip, would be brown hares. After enjoying such fine views of their mountain-based cousins in Scotland, I wanted to expand my portfolio of the introduced brown variety and knew my best bet would involve early starts. I was right, and after a short drive I started to see good numbers in the fields. Getting one close was just a matter of time and luck, and I found one cleaning near the edge of a field.

Also around early morning were grey partridges, another on my Most-Wanted list. A lot more shy than their red-legged friends, they don't often hang around to have their photo taken, so it needed a quiet approach.

After collecting Dad, we tried the marsh harriers again, as it was cloudless, but the extra warmth from the sun had brought along a haze and I struggled to get sharp images all the time.

On another brief tour around the lanes, I spotted a small stream that looked perfect for water voles, and just as I was scanning the banks, I saw one plop into the water. Great, where are the pics? Well I foolishly had opted to leave the camera in the car across the way, and by the time I returned with it, there was no sign, nor as it turned out, any access to the area where I'd seen it appear from. And despite calling in several times during the rest of the stay, I failed to see any others.

As before, we finished the day at the owl site and after cursing that a fellow 'tog seemed to have picked the best spot to park, I soon realised that I knew him (Kev Joynes) and spent a good while chatting about recent adventures and mishaps.

Back in good time for another fine pub meal and a few pints to round off my Birthday.

Another early start had me trying to see if the barn owl out in the evenings might appear in the morning too. It didn't, but I did get to see a few marsh harriers around, plus observed some rather strange behaviour from a brown hare. A wood pigeon had been predated by perhaps a sparrowhawk and the remains with half a pillow's worth of feathers were strewn in the long grass. The hare approached and then proceeded to chase off some jackdaws and a magpie, before returning to the kill, to have a good sniff around it. It then sat amongst the feathers for a good half hour before lolloping away.

Later that day, the barn owl failed to show and both Kev and I decided to call it quits. As Dad and I drove away, I spotted a barn owl sat on some chopped down branches, and it didn't fly off when I parked the car. Dad was able to get a few shots, but alas the angle I was able to safely pull in didn't allow me to point my camera at the owl, and as I tried via the back window, the owl got spooked, and flew off.

Driving merely yards along the road, I joked to Dad that we'd probably see it again, and then I spotted it, sat on the curb of the pavement! Again, before I could get near for a shot it flew, but made us laugh how it was just sitting there, as though waiting for a bus, perhaps.

Becoming a habit now, up with the dawn chorus and out for a longer drive inland. I was looking for partridges and hares, and anything else that might be around at that time. A pair of grey partridges scuttled across the road in front of me, and into a field. I parked and found they'd took flight. However, as I scanned the field to where they'd gone, another bird flew in, with distinctive white markings on its wings. Almost as soon as it landed, it seemed to vanish. My curiosity raised, I scanned the app on my phone for possibilities and the only bird that fitted the bill was a stone curlew.

My suspicions were confirmed when a couple of birders turned up, and after I had described what I thought I'd seen, they admitted that it was a secret breeding site, thankfully being watched by locals and the gamekeeper. The latter subsequently trundled up and we had a good chat, interrupted only when he spotted a brown rat and promptly blew it to smithereens with his rifle! They take eggs, apparently.

Further along the road was a pair of barn owls, so of course this meant one thing. Even earlier starts to reach this site, and lots of finger crossing. There were several pairs of stone curlew present, but the closest ones were always backlit by the sun first thing, and those in better light too distant, or if closer, invariably the heat from the ground had created a haze by then and made getting shots impossible.

After returning to base, with it seemingly being a calmer day, we headed over to Cley in the hope it might yield some shots of bearded tits. Calling into Salthouse first, as I wanted to see for myself how much it had changed since those awful floods. Quite a bit, though nature was sorting itself out, and I saw reports later that week of snow buntings being around there again.

The breeze had returned to Cley despite being absent elsewhere, and also from the floods, the reedbeds have been cut back extensively, so finding the beardies wasn't easy. Eventually saw some, but they never landed anywhere stable or visible enough for a decent shot. Plenty of marsh harriers, geese and egrets around, plus waders such as avocets.

As we returned to the car park, I saw a small gathering of togs nearby and went to investigate. Excellent, the black redstart reported earlier that week was still there, and feeding from the fence. Cue lots of photos, lots of wandering up and down the fence line, and quite a red head from the sun! Great little bird.

After a brief visit to the Dun Cow to sample the ales there, it was back to try for the grasshopper warbler that was apparently reeling near the main centre at Cley. It appeared long enough for us to get a few shots before vanishing into the deeper stuff.

A very brief and distant performance from the barn owl, and we were soon back in the pub.

Dawn at the stone curlew site but no luck with them. I did have fabulous close views of the barn owls as they hunted for prey, carrying it away once caught. I took some record shots of the curlews but they were backlit and soft. I did however encounter a little owl as I got back closer to our cottage. Sat on a pole, it glared as only they know how, before flying off.

The rest of the day was spent over at Sculthorpe Moor reserve, run by the Hawk And Owl Trust. Lin gave us a warm welcome and kindly showed us around the site, taking in the vast amount of work being done at the moment, including a new tower hide, on stilts overlooking the reedbeds. Unfinished when we were there, with just a bench in place, but not a bad place to be sat in the sunshine watching the world go by. Alas, not a lot happened, so will be a place I need to return to later in the year when the harriers are more active. A meal and pint at the Sculthorpe Mill pub ended another fine day.

Another morning lacking success with the curlews, though the barn owls were as busy as ever. And a ring ouzel also caught my attention before it yawned, and flew off. A much needed sausage bap was the order of the morning at RSPB Titchwell, before I made my way down to the shore, in time for the tide to be retreating. Dad didn't fancy the hike, so stayed around the hides.

As the mud was exposed, flocks of turnstones, oystercatchers, sanderlings and dunlins fluttered in to feed. The UniqBall head on my tripod was again an asset as I tried for shots of the waders as they skimmed by just above the waves.

Picking off crabs from the sand was a grey plover, which came remarkably close to me several times to feed.

The sunny day ended in style with the barn owl putting on a real show for some time. Hovering, diving, hunting this way and that. It took a while to catch something before heading away with the prize.

Guess what? Yes, no joy with the curlews again the next morning, though I did get some atmospheric hare shots to console myself with.

With it being the last full day, we aimed for Cley again, and grabbed some shots of pochards on one of the pools, looking vibrant in the sunshine.

We called into the Dun Cow for lunch, and later on spent a couple of sun-soaked hours beside the river at the Sculthorpe Mill again, which was heavenly. Back to try for the owl, which failed to show, but something far rarer to see did.

Whilst stood waiting, we were well aware of Cetti's warblers calling. They're not quiet when nearby. One seemed to be giving it everything it had from a hawthorn hedge, and another one obviously took offence. Flying in, it stopped on the edge of the bush, paused, burst into song before diving in, and chasing the rival away across the field. And yes, I did manage to get some shots of this.

It's only the fourth time I've ever seen one pose out in the open. A real treat!

That evening in the pub, Dad suggested that as we didn't need to leave the cottage until late morning, I ought to give the stone curlews one last go. Another bright morning at least, so maybe I would get something of the barn owls again. It started well, with a grey partridge sat absorbing the sun's first warming rays of the day, and I soon spotted the barn owls once more.

And as I was trying to get shots of one of the owls, I spotted the distinctive pattern on the wings of a bird as it landed not that far from me. I hoped it might come a bit closer, as it wandered around the field feeding.

It did. Stooping its head as it scuttled along, it gradually got closer and closer. And, with it being on the better side of the field, the light was just perfect.

Pausing between insect snacks, it steadily approached, and I switched the camera to silent mode just in case. I was amazed how close it came in the end. Such strange looking birds, with those bulbous yellow eyes.

Eventually it headed away again, and as I took my head from the camera, one of the barn owls flew past literally a few feet in front of me, looking across directly at me as if to say "Missed me!" and I had, as it promptly flew away! Didn't matter though, as I had a grin from ear to ear. After trips to Weeting Heath and another site in the past yielding nothing but a soft blob of a record shot, this was such a result.

Packing the car, we chose to while away some hours at the marsh harrier site. I'd seen a pair mating earlier in the day, so perhaps they were starting to set things up and the other harriers in the area might soon be chased away.

I chased a pair of cuckoos along a hedgerow, but they soon departed, which was our cue to do the same.

But as with the first day, we thought it would be wise to call in at the Lifeboat Inn first, for a last drop of Wherry and a pub lunch, before heading west, and home again.