Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Searching For Signs Of Spring

Spring this year has been rather unusual. Initially it appeared it was going to be very late, as winter dragged its heels and the cold weather persisted well into April, finally giving way to some welcome sunshine and warmth during my trip to Norfolk, though even then, some of the more traditional sights and sounds of the season failed to materialise.

Having dipped on even hearing a cuckoo in Norfolk, I chose to head down to RSPB Otmoor in Oxfordshire, to rectify the situation. Several had been reported on the blogs that are so helpful for occasional visitors such as myself, and as I opened the car door in the parking area, I heard a distant cuckoo calling. Excellent, one target ticked off the Spring List. Another might be lizards and grass snakes, though neither showed for me, despite an expansive search. Nevermind, the numerous hobbies hawking overhead were a welcome distraction...

With my 1DX at Fixation being repaired and serviced, I was relying on my 7D mk2 for once, and I realised pretty quickly that I was out of practice with it, in terms of knowing where to point it with the 700mm reach. That extra 1.6 crop means the target area is significantly tighter, and with fast moving targets like hobbies, I kept missing them initially. It didn't help either that I was trying to use a monopod. I ditched that, opting to hand-hold the lens, and soon got back into the swing of things.

And they were such good fun, I visited again a few days later, to find that the 8 hobbies had become over 15. At one point, as I stared skywards, all I could see were birds of prey. Red kites, buzzards and loads of hobbies. Fantastic.

Otmoor really is a fabulous reserve in the spring and I sincerely hope plans for an express-way road (Save Otmoor) don't get the green light, and potentially ruin all the hard work the RSPB have done there over the years. It is also one of only a handful of sites in the UK that attracts turtle doves, and hearing their purring call is simply a delight on a warm day.

After spotting one in an oak tree, but somewhat backlit, it was a treat to see it flutter down to the seed sprinkled out by volunteers, and give great views as it fed from the track.

Another species I try to locate in spring is the adder. I have to admit to being very frustrated and angry when I discovered my normal site for these elusive creatures had been cordoned off by Natural England, to prevent disturbance during the breeding season. Frustrated that I couldn't enjoy the sight of them basking in the sunshine, and angry at the morons who have forced NE to take such action. I heard via several sources that some photographers last year, were seen kicking over piles of logs in search of these snakes.

The mind boggles. These creatures are shy, alert and incredibly sensitive to movement and vibrations. Even standing motionless near one, if the wind takes your scent to them, they often slither away, so such a stupid, thoughtless and potentially damaging approach beggars belief.

And there are so few of them left in Worcestershire and surrounding counties, that the utmost care should be taken when attempting to photograph any.

Of course there are other sites around the area, so I tried them, and had varying success. Watching through my close-focusing Kite binoculars, I was able to see one adder keeping an eye on me from a moss-covered hole beneath some bracken, and also a pair copulating, which is something I hadn't seen before. They were locked together and when she decided to move further into the undergrowth, he had no choice but to be dragged along by her. Was quite comical actually.

Social media is a handy way to keep up to date on sightings at some of the local sites, and reports of pied flycatchers and common redstarts from the Wyre Forest caught my eye. Annoyingly, as I arrived at Dry Mill Lane I discovered the car park was closed off, and all the lane-side parking had been taken. No choice but to use the Visitor Centre instead, which was miles away from where I wanted to walk, and also not free of charge.

Maybe I missed the signs, but those that I did see, beside the parking meter were so vague in detail for the mapping of the area. I wanted to head towards Dowles Brook, but the signs just showed the different coloured tracks available for walking, riding or mountain biking. I ended up using Google Maps on my phone to work out the direction to go, but a distinctive and familiar bird song stopped me way before I reached the brook.

A wood warbler, several in fact, and calling not far from the wide, dusty track I had been trudging along. As the woods are so hilly, despite this warbler's tendancy to sing from high up in trees, I found I could stand on a slope and be almost eye-level at times. It was just a case of watching and hoping to get a shot before it flew to the next perch.

Initially I used my 7D Mk2 and 100-400mm lens, but the camera struggled to get a focus lock in time, especially with the contrasting backdrop behind the small bird.

So I swapped to the freshly returned 1DX and 500mm lens for a while, and that fared better.

Wandering down towards the brook, I stumbled upon some bluebell woods, and as they bled into areas of bracken, some vibrant orange-coloured butterflies caught my eye. Pearl-bordered fritillaries, and they were busy fluttering around amongst the vegetation. While the males never seemed to keep still, the females were landing frequently, to deposit eggs under leaves and flattened stems. That gave me the chance to use the 100-400mm as a macro lens, with its incredible ability to focus close up.

Down at the brook, I watched a family of grey wagtails, and glimpsed both common redstarts and blackcaps, as they picked off insects near the water. And as I began the arduous a dipper shot past, skimming above the stream.

After taking in reed-beds, heathland and woods, it was time to visit some lakes. And with a couple of hours free before hooking up with Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and fellow judge Jason Curtis, to review this year's entries for the calendar competition, I took a stroll around a local reserve.

What was noticeable in their absence, was a lack of swallows, martins and swifts. Normally by now, the abundance of insects over these lakes attracts these agile birds by the dozen, but I think in the three hours I was there, I saw just one swallow, and one house martin.

Strange calls from the reeds eventually led me to spotting what I assume is some sort of toad. They were very green, and generally hiding amongst the spawn and algae around the edge of the water. With the herons and egrets around, it wasn't a huge surprise to see them diving for cover when I tried to approach them, though I did spot one lurking between reeds, and grabbed a shot before it too, swam away.

A pair of great-crested grebes drifting serenely across one of the smaller pools provided some photo opportunities, especially when the male caught and offered a small fish to the chicks riding around on their mother's back. Made for a wonderful scene, but with only my 100-400mm lens, and being dressed in "civies" I was limited to what images I could obtain.

Back again the following day, dressed more appropriately this time, and I was soon lying on some polythene sheeting beside the main lake, 1DX and 500mm lens on the tripod, which was flat on the ground, with one tripod leg under water to get as low as possible. It wasn't comfortable, and it got worse when I realised the prickling pain I could feel on my hands, side and rear wasn't from the small thistles under me, but from angry red ants, and they were biting me. Very different to mozzie or midge bites, as they hurt immediately, like being stabbed with a red-hot needle.

But the grebes were still fishing, and the lower angle meant I could get the sort of image I had wanted before.

The adults were catching tiny fish, presenting them to the humbug chicks, but teasing them, to encourage them off of their mother's back, and on to the water to accept the meal.

Was an enchanting scene to see such a tiny stripy chick being delicately fed an equally tiny fish.

And amusing to watch the chicks then pursue, catch, and clamber back on to the back of the parent bird again. More amusing still, when she decided to stretch her wings before preening, and in doing so, forced both chicks down into the water, as she rose up!

But with the grebes being on the larger lake, they had more water to explore and fish from, and as the sun started to sink behind me, they headed further away. With clouds of midges now surrounding me, and finding parts of skin not doused in Smidge, I chose to make my escape, back home again.

Spring has most definitely arrived, but maybe some of the usual stars are waiting for summer, to make their appearance? One can only hope.

1 comment:

maddox pax said...
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