Thursday 10 January 2019

Sunny Intervals Leading To Wildlife Encounters

Inevitably, after spending weeks in the wildlife-rich Highlands, and then a fortnight on Mull, showing clients the wildlife on offer there (mainly otters), returning back to the Midlands is a bit disappointing. The "Post-Mull Lull" I call it. But I'm being unfair on wildlife around home. Plenty of it around, but perhaps more effort to find it and get images.

The weather during December didn't help either. The forecast could have just had a huge grey cloud over us for the whole month! But on odd days, the sun managed to break through, and when I did make the effort to venture out, I enjoyed some fine experiences.

The Cotswolds are just down the road. And I love to trundle round the lanes, looking at what might be out and about. Admittedly, my timing when I visited wasn't great, as there seemed to be a number of shoots on, and I was even questioned about what I was doing in one hamlet (despite my huge lens being pointed out of the car window), and then followed for a mile along the road, to watch what I had said I was doing. Maybe "shooting game with a camera" is more offensive in these parts to using a shotgun?

Anyway, as a result of the shoots, there were huge numbers of pheasants and partridges scuttling around, and it was just a case of finding somewhere to park up, and waiting. I love getting images of them on the traditional stone walls around the Cotswolds.

Comical characters!

With such short days at this time of year, and from past experience, I knew chances of seeing any action from wintering short-eared owls would be slim, but called over to a familiar site anyway. On arrival, there was a kestrel hovering over a meadow, long enough for me to grab a burst of shots.

And a short while later, a barn owl appeared.

Quartering the fields, it dived a couple of times for prey.

Once it had dispatched a rodent of some sort, it flew away meaningfully. Perhaps there are hungry beaks to fill elsewhere, or it was to be added to a cache, for rainy days...

The festive season of course means catching up with friends and family, so frequent visits to the pub would limit chances for wildlife photography. But just before the big day arrived, I called over to Bittell Lakes, local to me, for a black-throated diver that had been reported. On arrival, there was no sign of it, and the "finder" had left the site. With the light the "wrong way" I chose to leave after failing to see it, but returned within half an hour after it was spotted again! This time, at least I got to see it, but by then it was circling the trees, and flying away!

Thankfully it flew just down the road to Arrow Valley Lake, in Redditch, where I caught up with it, a day or so later. I wish I'd been wearing something I didn't care for getting mucky, as the fishing jetties around the pool were slimy, and while I could have gained a lower angle by lying down, I'd have ruined my jacket...

Still, the diver was doing circuits around the pool, and came very close at times.

And very popular with birders and photographers alike, even gaining interest from locals walking their dogs. Though I did hear it being referred to as a "black throated dipper" by one.

Smew have to be one of the most striking wildfowl around, so when a pair had been showing well on a fishing lake in Worcestershire, I had to make a visit. Very spooky, they tended to stay on the far side of the pool.

But eventually one flew a bit closer, and brought the other one over too.

With a lack of breeze, reflections were fantastic, and added something else to the images.

It's been years since I last visited Brandon Marsh, so on one bright morning I headed over. The roads around the area have changed dramatically, so I had to pay particular attention to where I needed to go... On arrival at the site, I bumped into a photographer friend, who gave me a very useful update on what had been seen there of late, though somewhat typically, I'd managed to miss it all. Still, worth knowing what can be seen there and when. We sat in one of the hides for a while, and hoped the kingfisher might perch up. It did, but about 100 yards away. But the two whooper swans that had been frequenting the lake recently had chosen to stay that day, and we enjoyed some super close views. Sadly by then the light had gone, so I had to play with exposure settings to get interesting images.

Another bird on my radar and also close to home, was a common scoter. I've seen these before, but usually further afield, such as Burghead in Scotland. So to have one on my doorstep was great. The weather wasn't though, so at the first sign of blue skies, I was off to the lakes. Unfortunately it was a Sunday, and most of the local residents had had the same idea. Finding the bird wasn't hard, but it tended to stay out in the deeper water, so rarely came in close.

I had chosen to lie on a fishing jetty, and as a result, gained a few weird looks and comments from passersby. I'm used to that though!

As soon as the cloud gathered, the light all but vanished. Perhaps it will linger for another bright day?

With all the grey overcast conditions, I had been watching the forecasts like a hawk, so was a bit miffed when one day promised to be sunny, but I had already made arrangements preventing me from going out. And when images from a friend surfaced on Social Media, I knew I would have to make the most of the next day, as the sun was again apparently going to shine, and it might be a while before such conditions presented themselves to me again.

A few years ago, I visited a site in the Forest Of Dean, where I hooked up with a couple of friends, and watched crossbills drinking from small puddles near a woodland. It wasn't great light back then, and I didn't have my 1DX, so I was keen to revisit, after seeing images, and reading reports of similar happening again.

Parking up, I opted to stay in the car, and after an hour, was rewarded with a small group dropping down for a drink.

Fabulous, and in the sunlight, the birds simply glowed.

Over the next few hours, I enjoyed several sightings of them, and by moving the car around a bit, got slightly closer each time.

The flock comprised of adults of both genders, plus juveniles and sub-adults. All of them absolutely beautiful.

As with a lot of wildlife, it pays to learn sounds as well as sights, and I could hear the flock approaching, well before any would appear, giving me plenty of time to get the camera ready for the shots. Silent mode of course, as they're flighty birds.

When the sun had moved right round behind me, and shadows were cast across the puddles, I knew I'd enjoyed the best of it, and left them alone. What a treat though.

I'll soon be back in the Highlands, showing clients the wildlife up there, but these local trips reminded me that I don't have to travel to the other end of this island to find subjects worth photographing.