Monday 25 April 2016


Any break to Norfolk is special to me, but this year was a bit more so as it marked (hopefully) the end of the treatments that Dad has endured since getting back from Mull late last summer, and would help him start his recovery, not only from a physical side, but more importantly psychologically. I had to be sure he was fit enough first, which meant leaving any arrangements to the last moment, but within 24 hours of him agreeing, I had booked a small cottage in Wells-next-the-Sea and we set off on the following Saturday morning. It wasn't the best start though, when I awoke to find it had snowed overnight! I thought this was supposed to be Spring?

Dumping our gear in the cottage, we were both keen to get out exploring, and went straight to a spot we had enjoyed previously for watching marsh harriers. The skies were initally clearing, but each time a harrier strayed close enough for a photo, the light would fail to reach the bird, giving somewhat dark images. And when the clouds gathered once more, we relocated to a pub! The views of the Wherry were much better...

As with most trips away, I get up at dawn to explore what can be found nearby, and soon discovered that this year there were noticeably more brown hares around the fields. And despite it being April, there was still some mad March hare antics going on. I parked up in the corner of a field, and watched.

Thankfully they were far too busy with each other to even notice me, and I had some incredibly close views as they scampered across the fields and chased one another.

There were even a couple of fights, with nothing held back, leaving fur flying in the morning breeze...

Then as the sun got a little higher, they all dispersed leaving me to seek out something else. This better light meant I headed straight over to where we had been the day before, and this time the harriers were lit up beautifully as they circled over the marshes.

They're stunning birds, and were busy displaying, seeking out nesting material and also hunting, flying low across the reedbeds, slowly scouring the channels of water criss-crossing the nearby farmland, and dropping on to anything thay moved or didn't flee. With the number of wildfowl around, and vulnerable chicks, I couldn't see the harriers struggling to find enough to eat.

With it being Dad's Birthday, I thought I'd better get back to take him out to enjoy it. Touring around the lanes, we had great views of more hares, marsh harriers, grey partridges - in fact there seemed to be a lot of these around too - maybe they're getting better at avoiding the shooters, red-legged partridges and a glimpse of a couple of little owls. One of which I made a note of to try for the next morning.

But I know that Dad loves the Lifeboat Inn at Thornham, so as soon as we were near, we popped in for a beer. Standing just out of the breeze, we soaked up the views and warmth of the April sun. It's a fabulous spot.

Later in the afternoon I thought I'd seen the first barn owl of the trip until I realised it was actually a short-eared owl. Record pics only, as it was hazy by then and distant.

The day ended in another pub, enjoying some fine ales and good pub grub. Dad wanted to forget about the age he'd reached on his Birthday, as I did, for the next day was mine.

With a high pressure forecast for the week, my big day was disappointingly gloomy. The fields were mostly devoid of the hares I'd seen the day before, and all I could find were a few partridges. Plus the grey skies meant it was no point looking for the harriers, as the pics would have been too dark.

The morning remained pretty dull too, so I resorted to heading to the pub for my Birthday pint, and as we arrived, the clouds parted and the sun appeared. Perfect timing...

Later in the day, we returned to the harriers site and enjoyed much better views, and also found another spot nearby to watch from, which was a bit more sheltered from the rather cold breeze, and gave good views of hares and muntjac deer. Some of the harriers were defending territories now, and chased off rivals that strayed too close.

If my Birthday had been a little quiet on the wildlife side, the following day made up for it. Cloudless at dawn, and the little owl I had hoped to see finally appeared. Almost all of my little owls shots in my image library are of them in natural settings, so to get one on a barn was a belated Birthday present, and in such warm light too.

After the owl dived down and out of sight, I headed into the lanes once more, and soon found some brown hares. One even approached along the edge of a track to within a few yards of me, before pausing, probably from hearing the sound of the camera, posing, and then diverting off into the field behind. They are such beautiful animals - I love their eyes.

Then, after spending a couple of evenings without seeing a barn owl, I spotted one hunting over the marshes in the morning sun. I didn't need any encouragement to get out for a closer look. Needless to say, it had vanished by the time I'd got everything out of the car, but I took a stroll to see if I could relocate it. I didn't. It found me, appearing along the track from me, flying directly towards me. I waited for it to be almost filling the frame before firing off some shots.

The sound immediately spooked the owl, which changed direction and flew around me and off into some woods, appearing further down the track behind me, continuing hunting.

Wonderful! What a start to the day.

With Dad still being pretty weak, we limited any walking and I made sure if I did wander off at all, he was somewhere relatively sheltered and with somewhere to sit down if needed. That said, the progress he was making daily in terms of his fitness was astounding, filling me (and him) with confidence that he might be able to get back to being able to live normally again eventually. The marshes were alive with creatures setting themselves up for the breeding season, with plenty of insects already around too. The harriers were occasionally straying close enough for a pic, though typically just as Dad had returned to the bench nearby to rest his legs!

I did make up for it on the way back home though, when I managed to spot (not sure how as I was driving) a barn owl perched on a post in a paddock down a side-road, and we managed to park up to get some shots, though I missed out on what might have been when a car forced me to move and the owl flew off. Typical! Still, Dad got some super shots as the owl was on his side of the car.

Another cloudless morning followed, and again I caught up with the little owl, who was either stretching or perhaps breaking wind, when I spotted it on the roof.

The marsh harriers were very much focused on gathering twigs and sticks to build up their nests, sometimes spending some time on the ground breaking free the bit they were interested in, before returning to the reedbed, circling and dropping out of sight.

Up till now, we had spent all the break north of Wells, so I thought we ought to go for a look around the Cley side, and as Dad was able to walk a bit further, he might be ok to manage the stroll along the East Bank. He could, and the new hide at the end of it provided him with the perfect place to sit and watch for wildlife whilst I had a mooch along the back of the shingle beach, though the only birds I could see were flighty wheatears, meadow pipits and a few linnets. And a party of about 40 hikers saw off anything else from my vacinity. I watched a harrier hunting over the pools behind me, and was pleased to see it fly towards and over Dad's head. I was less pleased when I spoke to him later to discover he'd not even seen it!

The breeze had picked up by now, and it was genuinely chilly on the walk back, but we had to stop to photograph a ruff feeding in the small pools, until a lapwing chased it off.

Having heard I was in the area, a Twitter friend (Stephen from Pebbles Photography) had spoken to me and suggested a couple of sites for barn owls, as the usual ones I knew of weren't yielding any action, and I was on my way to one of them the next morning when a barn owl stopped me in my tracks. Only about a mile from the cottage, it flew across a paddock and perched on a post. Fabulous, and it didn't fly off when I parked up.

It did relocate when a truck thundered by, and I followed suit, heading to the site suggested. Didn't have to wait long for another barn owl to show, and I spent a good half an hour photographing it, though it did like vanishing over a hedge for good periods of time.

With it supposedly being the last day of decent weather, we chose to head inland to visit Sculthorpe Moor. Sadly the wildlife there was pretty scarce, though the woodland was full of birdsong and plenty of activity at the feeders. I don't think work being done at the end of the channel of reeds helped, so we cut our losses and found ourselves outside the Sculthorpe Mill, which on such a day is up there with the best of places to sit, enjoy an ale and watch the world go by.

It's always a pain to drag myself away from there, but the cloud seemed to be holding off, and we fancied returning to the coast to see what might be around, briefly stopping to photograph a patch of bluebells at the entrance to an estate that looked lovely in the sunshine.

Having strained my back reaching for the camera from the back seat, I chose to sit in the car for a bit whilst waiting to see if the barn owl might show late afternoon, but Dad braved the cool breeze and stood watching. The plan was for him to alert me should it appear. In fact I'd spotted not one but a pair appearing over the hedge and was already scrambling out of the car by the time Dad called me over.

The light was from the left side, and bright, so made the images somewhat backlit, and revealed details through the owl's wings, in the feathers that isn't often seen when photographed with the light behind me.

Made for some interesting images.

And as is the norm, the 1DX was absolutely awesome at locking on to the owls, despite being awkward light, and I came away with rather a lot of images from the session, along with a huge grin, something Dad was wearing too. We'd definitely be trying here again!

In fact, I was there again the very next morning, meeting up with Stephen for a chat. We saw an owl briefly, and more muntjac deer - seemed to be loads around the fields. But it was great to meet up with another Twitter buddy, and have a good natter about things. But with it being the last full day in Norfolk, I had to head back to pick Dad up and tour the harbours and fields along the coast, hoping for something to photograph. Brancaster harbour provided us with a tasty pot of local prawns, and good views of the black-tailed godwits feeding in the mud, being distracted occasionally by the sound of the jets thundering over high in the skies that morning.

Driving up to the Choseley Barns area, I was keen to see if any interesting birds were around, and we were soon watching three wheatears. Initially Dad said he wouldn't bother photographing them as he has pics of them already. I said I always photo them as they're such gorgeous birds, and their posing changed his mind pretty quickly.

Whilst watching them, I spotted a flicker of red... common redstart, a male and absolutely stunning. Perching in the hedge, he would drop down to snatch an insect, before retreating to the cover of the branches once more.

Never close enough for a proper shot, and I wasn't planning to get out, especially when I also clocked a male whinchat feeding in a similar manner! A beauty.

Then it was over to the owls site for another go, and we weren't disappointed. Once more, both owls appeared together and hunted around the fields in front of us.

The light was less harsh than before, and certainly made it easier for Dad's camera (my old 40D) to track them.

The last morning brought the prospect of the drive home, and also a freezing northerly breeze. It was cold enough to stop me waiting around for any owls to show, and I didn't really have that much time to wait anyway. Up at the barns I failed to connect with anything much, so I called over to the little owl on my way back to the cottage, and was pleased to see it out. Initially it was in the usual spot, but after spotting something to drop down upon, it landed back lower down on the roof, and stayed put long enough for a few different images.

Surprised me how large their feet are!

When it returned to the usual spot, I approached for a few closer shots until the cold wind, and the time forced me back to pack up and head off. A tour of the harbours yielded nothing in terms of photos, and the gathering clouds and cold temperature persuaded us to head west and home.

For me the trip had been very productive, amassing many images to add to my stock library, but for Dad, it had reminded him that there is still a life to be enjoyed away from hospitals, and judging by his recovery over just a week, he can look forward to enjoying his retirement once again.

Friday 1 April 2016

Oxfordshire: Otmoor And Farmoor

Oxfordshire is a county I normally visit in late Spring, as the RSPB reserve of Otmoor tends to attract good numbers of hobbies returning to the UK to breed. But in need of a walk, I decided to zip down the M40 to make the most of a bright day. I hoped that I might perhaps see the marsh harriers reported from the reserve, or catch a glimpse of a brown hare. If nothing else, the walk around the place is worth it most days.

A pair of red kites circled the car park as I gathered my kit for the stroll. They drifted elegantly off towards the marshes, and I followed, albeit somewhat more clumsily, getting a leg of my tripod caught in the swinging entrance gate! Along the path the air was filled with birdsong, with linnets, blue and great tits and wrens battling for airtime. The feeders were a hive of activity, including goldfinches and a variety of tits. Amusingly there was a grey squirrel desperately doing battle with the squirrel-proof feeder, and not getting a great deal of joy from what I could see. Alas I failed to see any of the bramblings that had been seen recently.

It felt a bit strange to be wandering along without any hope of seeing or hearing the purring turtle doves that are often present during the summer months. I didn't take a shot until I peered through the first screen, when a grey heron approached the back of the pool, seemingly performing a relay race with its partner as it took off immediately as the other one landed on their nest.

It wasn't long before one of the marsh harriers, a male, lifted out of the reeds, but he was a smidge far off for taking photos. After circling high up, he then went into a stooping dive, much like the goshawks I'd watched earlier this year, though this was far more impressive, as he went much higher and repeated the display several times. Wonderful to watch.

Around the pools were good numbers of wildfowl, including tufted ducks, mallards, coots, teal, moorhens and closest were some shovelers. The males of these ducks seemed pretty restless, and were paddling out from the cover of the reeds, then taking flight, only to circle the pools briefly before landing back where they started. This gave me the chance of some flight shots, and I was pleased to see the gorgeous patches of colours on their wings on the photos.

Whenever a female shoveler appeared, the males would gather around, bobbing their heads up and down excitedly, only to watch her paddle off, seemingly unimpressed! The females also brought in more males from across the marshes - perhaps that was the reason for the brief flights, to check for available females!

In the 90 minutes or so I was at the first screen, not once did a marsh harrier stray close enough for an image, so I decided to continue the walk to the end screen. As half-expected, no sooner had I gone around the corner to the next screen, one of the marsh harriers rose up and flew straight over where I had just been standing. I seem to recall uttering a few expletives.

The hedgerows were occupied by numerous small birds, singing or searching for grubs to eat. I saw reed buntings, robins, finches and heard a few chiffchaffs belting out their signature calls. The surprise of the day was waiting for me as I reached the far screen. I was just lifting my camera off my shoulders when I spotted a pale bird with dark wing-tips heading across the back of the pool. Something about it made me look harder... a male hen harrier!!

I could just about balance the camera on the tripod to grab a few record shots before it vanished from sight behind the trees. I hoped it might circle around for another view, but alas it failed to do so. Great to see though. Judging by the direction from which it appeared, it probably flew into the reserve across the rifle range. There's some irony, in that it had less chance of being shot on there than when it eventually finds itself over a grouse moor in a few weeks time.

The pool in front was quieter than the other one, with a pair of swans drifting gracefully across it. I was glad of my UniqBall head to ensure the water would be on the level for any images taken, which is especially helpful when the subject fills the frame and limits any cropping that might need to be done to correct such a problem in post-processing.

I also spotted the first swallow of the year, chasing insects around over the water. Insects are a problem at Otmoor, and whenever the breeze subsided, the clouds would amass over the paths. Horrid things! Let's hope the swallow is followed by many others to reduce the insect population.

After seeing the hen harrier, I wasn't keen on leaving quickly, and was glad I hung around, when finally one of the marsh harriers flew a bit closer. While never as close as those seen in Norfolk a few years back, it was a welcome sight.

It soon drifted off again, and I watched it do battle with a red kite shortly after, to chase it from I assume, where the nest will be this year. It will also need to keep a watchful eye on the buzzard population, as I counted at least four around at times.

Back to the first screen, just in time to watch and giggle at a great-crested grebe trying to swallow a fish far too big for it. It tried several times to get it down, but it wasn't going to fit, so it had to let it go.

I had left it a bit late in the day to head over to Farmoor for the red-necked grebe, so returned the next day in similar weather conditions. The last one I saw there favoured one corner of the pool, so I assumed it would be there. Nope. Was the other side, so as before, I ended up walking miles further than I needed, but with only one other photographer present when I eventually got there, we enjoyed some close views as it chased fish into the shore.

The water was a bit choppier than I'd have liked, but the 1DX did a sterling job of focusing on it each time.

It seemed to be catching sticklebacks mainly, and between dives, picking insects from the surface of the water.

Amusingly, sometimes the sticklebacks would be wrapped in a fine, stringy weed and the grebe didn't want to eat that, so would try to flick this from the fish... and not always successfully, flinging the fish away too!

Eventually my legs started to fail me, from having to squat down to get a low angle for the shot, then standing with the weight of the camera, tripod and my ludicrously heavy rucksack on my back, to move position each time the grebe dived. I hoped my legs might have been stronger after climbing through the deep snow in the Highlands recently, but obviously not.

On the way back to the car, I encountered a rather worried lady who had no change to get out of the car park. I donated a pound coin, which was reluctantly accepted... and as I drove out moments after her, I spotted that the barrier wasn't down anyway. Hey ho! A lovely couple of days out in Oxfordshire, and I'm sure I'll be back down there again soon, probably to coincide with the arrival of those dashing birds of prey...