There was a female Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) on the Exe Estuary today. It is highly unusual that a bird that breeds in the Arctic north specifically, circumpolar, on the Arctic coasts of Europe (Iceland and Norway), and Asia (Russia) North America (Canada, Alaska, USA and Greenland). There is no explanation for one seen here in Devon today right in the middle of the European summer. I took some photographs of the bird that was fishing in the shallow tidal waters right in front of Exton Station on the Avocet Line. This is a pretty little duck and a massive rarity in the south of England at this time of the year.
This last few days has seen me trying to get close to Whinchats on Dartmoor. This is a species of chat that, unlike the Stonechat, is a migrant that winters in Africa. I have been fortunate enough to see this species in The Gambia which was a thrill. Dartmoor is a typical breeding habitat for the species. It is an upland area, relatively isolated and quiet. The habitat is moorland with thick scrubby grass and boggy areas with scattered old hawthorns, bracken and gorse. Fundamentally I would imagine that seclusion is the primary requirement and good nest sites are part of this. In common with several other Dartmoor nesting species, such as Meadow Pipit, Tree Pipit and Stonechat they nest on the ground.
A clutch of eggs.
The nest is a small cup of fibre and grasses hidden in the grass and even when you know the location within a few square metres, it can be incredibly difficult to find. Eggs are a gorgeous vivid turquoise blue and while I abhor the concept of egg collecting I can understand why someone with a less ethical and criminal attitude would be attracted to a bird's egg. For me an egg is a beautiful jewel without equal in the natural world.
A female Whinchat.
I have enjoyed watching a pair of Willow Warblers this week. They are nesting close to a path and high up in a bank but very close to the ground. The tiny nest is really well concealed and it has to be because predation is very common and a large percentage of nests fail. For this reason the young grow rapidly and fledge the nest at around 11 to 12 days old. They work really hard to feed their clutch and are constantly collecting prey and will deliver to the nest around 10 times an hour.
The video is best viewed on an iPad.
I was lucky enough to be shown this nest by a BTO registered ringer and nest finder on Dartmoor this week. With some real patience, fieldcraft and common sense I took some lovely photos and video. The Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) is a small and common warbler that breeds on Dartmoor as well as in numerous other habitats and locations in the UK and Europe. They nest on the ground, for example in a depression, perhaps made by a cow's hoof on a bank, typically amongst grass and vegetation. The nest is hard to find and even when I returned, after being shown it 12 hours earlier I really struggled to relocate it. Once found I moved back to 30 yards or so and watched as the parents came in to feed the youngsters. Once I was really sure and confident that the birds were uncaring of me I moved just a tiny bit closer and then set up a video camera on to the nest. You can be assured that the birds were not disturbed at all or they would not have been coming in to feed the nestlings as you can see in the video. The footage took 40 minutes to film and in that time the parents visited 7 times, multiply that by 16 hours of daylight and you can see that the birds deliver food around 160 times in a day! That's some kind of shift and a lot of prey needs to be available which includes all sorts of insects and caterpillars.
As well as the Willow Warbler I was also privileged to be shown Whinchat nests with both eggs and others with nestlings. It's sometimes hard to even find a Whinchat let alone find a nest so again this was a massive thrill for me. I plan to visit again today to film the activity at these nests. Again, the safety of the birds will be of paramount importance. I would just like to mention at this point that I am a Schedule 1 licensed bird photographer and to get the licence you need to fulfil a list of criteria which includes references from wildlife experts and senior members of the community as well as proving to Natural England that you have the necessary skills and acumen to photograph at a nest without disturbance. To whet the appetite here is the nest of a Whinchat which the BTO ringer checked and we took a quick photograph of. Again the nest is on the ground and hidden away in the grass and vegetation.
The male displaying on the rock beneath the female.
So this is D Day and we are now in to summer without a doubt. I arrived at the cuckoo territory before 8 o'clock, confident that the early morning - well relatively early for me - would bring me some success. I hiked up to the spot and began to set up. Imagine my disappointment when opposite, I could see tents and people camping. I went to chat to them and discovered that they were about to pack up their stuff and leave. Even before they did I had some success though. Their was the usual bubbling sound that I have associated with mating behaviour and first a female arrived in the tree followed with much excitement from both me and the cuckoo, a male. He landed close to her and with even more excitement, again from us both and carried on serenading her with that call song that we all know so well.
The female attracts her mate and watches him display.
At 9 15 the campers left and I knew that I was going to do better now, at least I hoped. I was right because at 9.30 the male was back on the tree and I got some of the best views that I have had so far this year - not realising that better was to come in just a few minutes. The male stayed in the tree for a few minutes before flying down to the ground and I was hoping it would perch on a really photogenic perch that I had seen it on - from a distance though- yesterday. It didn't but instead it flew off ,strongly calling as it went, sex was on it's mind. The next event was the return of the female, followed seconds later by the male again. She remained in the tree but then some fascinating and extremely interesting behaviour occurred. The male flew down to a rock where he proceeded to display to her. He swayed slowly and deliberately from side to side and cocked his tail beautifully. He then flew to a near log and carried on with the display. All the while the female watched from above. It was as though he was in an arena and he was putting on a show for her, reminiscent of a lyre bird displaying in a lek. I was witnessing behaviour that others had rarely seen I would guess. After a short while she left the tree and he flew after her very strongly and right above my head in the hide, just a foot or so from me, as I said,sex was on his mind. When I had arrived this morning I had hoped for some good photo opportunities but I never imagined that they would be as good as this.
Having had such good cuckoo success yesterday I couldn't wait for the new day to dawn, then the weather forecast seemed to indicate a front moving through but I decided to risk it anyhow and I was back on the moor by around 9 o'clock. I set up overlooking the tree where I had photographed the bird yesterday and it wasn't long before Cuckoos were calling - at least 2 and I watched them flying from tree to tree but not close enough for a photograph. After an hour and with a Cuckoo calling almost constantly and not too far away, I decided to change tack and see if I could stalk up to where it was perched. I knew this would be really hard but I could see a cuckoo now, low on and old dead tree stump. I watched as it flew down to feed and I thought I could get much closer but I was wrong! As I approached, almost on my belly - defying my age some would say - I was almost in position when suddenly from the tree above me another cuckoo - probably a female - flew out followed by the male who had now seen me as well! I was disappointed but now I knew where they are feeding. I sat myself under a tree opposite and got myself camouflaged and hidden and began to wait. Unfortunately the weather worsened and the promised wet front arrived. I was shrouded in a mist and a steady drizzle began to fall. I peered out of a hole in my cam stuff and then, suddenly there was a female cuckoo flying in against the strong breeze. It landed right on the tree where I hoped one would! She was wet through and probably didn't appreciate the mobbing of a meadow pipit which usually happens. She remained long enough for me to take a few nice pics before, with the mobbing pipit in tow, she flew to my right and in to a nearby hawthorn. I was going to swing my camera around to her but the pipit got the better of her and she flew off again strongly. I love it when I put in a lot of effort and plan a strategy and it pays off, so today's encounter and subsequent photograph was very rewarding.
This is the best time to see and if you are lucky and have some knowledge of what it takes, the best time to photograph Cuckoos. I have been lucky this last few years but this year it has been hard work. I decided to put in a real shift yesterday and eventually it paid off with a great encounter involving both a male and the lovely female in the photographs. I first heard a cuckoo quite a distance away after waiting patiently for 7 hours, it had been that long between hearing one when I arrived and eventually hearing another - or the same one of course. It kept calling and then after a long while it was calling again but now much closer, I caught sight of it and made my way nearer with myself covered in cam netting. It was a male bird of course and it moved on without me getting close enough for a a good photograph but I could hear it further to my right. Then suddenly right where the male had been, there was a female and she was perched close now and I managed to get a shot or two as she flew down to feed. Success at last!
I had an enchanting encounter with a family of young foxes yesterday evening, just before sunset. I had seen a fox by my caravan hide the other day, as I quietly made my way there I could see a fox just sitting there in the sun, whats more, it didn't seem to be all that alert or wary and I walked ever closer to it. Then later on, my friend Dick told me that he had seen a vixen and cubs there recently so I thought I would go back with the camera and see if I could get a photo or two. Again, as I approached the gate I saw three cubs who were playing in the grass and oblivious to me but eventually they disappeared in to the cover of the woodland. It wasn't long before one came out again and continued to romp around in the long grass and amongst the wild flowers. It came ever closer and closer to me but was still 30 feet away from my position as I stood out in the open but very still. The wind was blowing in my direction so it probably couldn't scent me. I pursed my lips and made a few loud squeaks which really got the little fox interested and it started to approach me. I have seen my brother do this and knew it worked but I didn't have an idea that it would be so effective. I squeaked again and again and in the end it was literally no more than 6 feet from me, it just couldn't resist being inquisitive. and I could see why it hadn't seen me. One eye was damaged and instead of a bright sparkle there was a white sunken and bloody socket. The poor animal had lost an eye and this was why it was struggling with the concept of caution. I would suspect that with nature being kindest to the strong and fit, this young animal will soon meet its end sadly. How stupid is a fox that would approach a grown man's squeak? Later on I saw an adult fox and tried the squeak again. This time the wary, intelligent animal hastily made its way in to the undergrowth proving that if you want to live to adulthood and you are a fox you have to learn that its probably not a good idea to walk towards a strange sound.
In the photo below, you can see how close the cub came and also it's nasty injury that will have such a massive impact on it's life expectancy.
I love Stonechats! I was out on Dartmoor this morning, looking for Cuckoos and to try for some photos of this great species. There is such a small window in which to be successful because in a few weeks time the males will already be heading south back on migration. It was unbearably cold this morning, I could only manage an hour before I was cold right through to my bones. I had seen a Cuckoo and heard one in the distance but I think the windy conditions had made it a difficult day for them as well as me. On my walk back to the car I had my attention drawn by this Stonechat which is exactly what he was trying to do, draw my attention away from his nest! They are such lovely birds though.
Having recently returned from Spain it has taken me a couple of days to get back in to the swing of things and get out birding again. Yesterday I went out to the area on Dartmoor where I had seen and photographed Cuckoos last year. I am a few days earlier than last year though and I would suggest that the time of year, perhaps even down to the day is very important. The Cuckoos seen last year - and in previous years - have all been feeding on small caterpillars on short grass and I would guess that the development of the caterpillars is vitally important. As soon as there is a good source of prey in the form of moth caterpillars then I am hopeful that the Cuckoos will come in to feed. I did get very close to a Cuckoo yesterday but unfortunately it was perched on the tree behind me - very close - but not on the tree in front of me! Never the less, it was a massive thrill when after sitting for a couple of hours, suddenly there was a Cuckoo and doing it's thing only a few feet away. In previous years I had watched small birds, including Pied Flycatcher and Common Redstarts coming to feed on the same caterpillars and seeing these from just a few feet away was almost as thrilling as the Cuckoos. So far this year, I have had the immense pleasure of having Meadow Pipits feeding almost around my feet as I sat camouflaged. This is always a great thing to happen because it proves beyond doubt that I am sufficiently well concealed. The bird (above) was coming in to the short grass on average around every 20 minutes or so and filling it's beak with small invertebrates before probably flying back to a nest somewhere nearby to feed its young. Check back next week because I am going to continue looking and hopefully I will photograph a nice Cuckoo (for the 4th year running incidentally).
This is a Griffon Vulture, one of 72 species and around 30 photographed so far. This is an amazing place and so close to the UK. Photographic conditions are difficult due to the high intense and very bright sunshine which casts shadow over the subject. However, I have managed good photographs of around 30 species so far - 36 hours in to this guided trip with Griffon Tours. Highlights birdwise so far has been the 10 "lifers" - birds that I have seen for the first time - Calandra Lark, Short toed Lark, Montagues Harrier, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Serin to name only 4........ how could I forget Black-bellied Sandgrouse!!! Off today to see more beauties.
This is a Pallid Swift.
There hasn't been many posts here this last week because I haven't had as much success as normal. I have missed lots of other good birds in Devon as well as I have been concentrating on getting the very best photographs of Peregrines, Kestrel and - really unusually - Stock Dove...... Stock Dove I hear you ask? But more about that later. I have enjoyed my stake outs at my hide though but this has stopped me photographing other birds and then when you don't have any success it seems like a lot of wasted time. Both yesterday and today for example, I spent a total of 6 hours sitting waiting for a bird to land on the old oak tree but it was a total failure, worth waiting for though because every bird that I have photographed from this hide and in this tree previously has been absolutely wonderful. There are still Peregrines in the territory and I have seen them on avery trip recently but in spite of a lot of patience, not on the Oak Tree. However, it's no hardship sitting comfortably in the hide listening to the woodland birds half listening to the radio (with headphones) and all the while hoping and half expecting an amazing bird to land right there in the perfect spot.
Just a bit about this image, beautiful with the different light.
Now to Stock Dove. I was sat in the hide last week waiting for the Kestrels and hopefully, one of the resident Peregrines when suddenly a pigeon landed right where the birds of prey like to land. I was expecting it to be a Wood Pigeon because I have seen them there several times but I was wrong and what a lovely surprise when I realised that it was a Stock Dove. This is a bird that I have only seen - with certainty - a few times in Devon and a couple of times in Yorkshire. This is a reasonably rare(ish) resident Devon bird that is probably under recorded though and perhaps more common than realised but in the UK, the population is thought to be around 260,000 compared to nearly 6 million Wood Pigeons so you can see, they are not common at all. It is to my eyes a pretty soft gentle looking bird with a a very distinctive colourful patch on the neck and a distinctive dark incomplete wing bar. Once you have seen a Stock Dove you will not confuse the species for the obviously very similar feral pigeon that are related to Rock Doves. That species has a white rump whereas the Stock Dove has a grey rump. Unusually the Stock Dove is a hole nesting birds that likes to use old oak trees apparently. That is unusual and it can't be that easy to find enough nest holes and for that reason they will use a nest box. I read somewhere that nest boxes put up for owls are regularly taken over by these pigeons. Half of the European population is found in the UK but like I have already alluded, while not being particularly rare, they are often overlooked. I have been back to my hide twice since I took these photographs and I have not had another visit which probably reinforces how lucky I was.
I recently took some photographs of a Kestrel on the same perch and from the same position that I had photographed Peregrines previously. I compared the images to get a good idea of the size differences between different species and more dramatically, the difference in size between adult Peregrines. I have to confess to being staggered at the difference between the female and male Peregrines. To get a good accurate idea of the sizes you need to check the branch which in all pictures is the same size.
A few weeks ago I became aware of a pair of Kestrels that were showing interest in a nest ledge at the site of the Peregrine Falcons that I am licensed to photograph. It is almost a week since I visited the site and even on my 2 previous visits I had seen the Kestrels and I imagined that they had decided not to breed at this site. Perhaps the male is too young? I visited the site today hoping to photograph the Peregrines from a hide that is set up next to an old oak tree. I settled down for what I expected to be the usual wait and to help pass the time I started to read from my iPad. Suddenly I heard the Kestrels who were calling very loudly and were very close. Before I knew it there was the male on the perch in front of me. I was caught off guard and I failed to get a shot before it flew off, still calling and obviously down on the nest ledge. i was disappointed not to have managed at least one shot because for several weeks I had imagined that any shot from this hide and on that perch would be quite a good one. Then just before I had chance to feel too disappointed, there it was again, or so I thought, but this time it was the female. I took loads of photos and had chance to have a really good close look at it before it flew off as well but it had been there for at least 5 minutes. As if that wasn't enough suddenly there was the male and he stayed for quite a while and I not only took some great photos I could also study him really well.
Both pictures above show the female which was slightly larger than the male and the most obvious differences was the brown tail banded with dark bands in the female and a grey blue tail in the male, banded with dark bands. These bands are absent in males that are 2 years old or more. In addition to the colour of the tail the back of the male is also much richer brown - in fact almost brick red. I think that if the bird (below) were older then the moustache strike would be bolder and more defined as it is in the female above. Look at the beak of the male below, on the upper bill you can see the tomial tooth which is a feature of falcons and also very noticeable in Peregrines.
I spent a few hours today looking to take photographs of Tree Pipits at a spot near Mortonhampstead close to Dartmoor. Checking my galleries I can see that I have been there in this calendar week over the last few years. The Tree Pipits can be hard to separate from the Meadow Pipits but once you see them in their very distinctive parachuting display flights, they are unmistakeable. If you compare pictures of known Tree Pipits with Meadows one or two things become obvious. The hind claw on the Meadow Pipit is noticeably longer, in fact it usually looks almost too long. The hind claw of a Tree Pipit is a more balanced length. Then , look at the flank markings, this of a Tree Pipit are much finer unlike the Meadow which are usually very much bigger. Then, but I think this is less obvious, the beak of the Tree Pipit is heavier. But even after looking at all of those diagnostic features you may still get it wrong. However like I have already alluded to, the song and display of the Tree Pipit will always clinch it.
The bird above and below is a Meadow Pipit, note the flanks heavily barred right down to the legs. I have also noticed that the legs of Tree Pipits are more flesh coloured. I was quite sure that the bird below was a Tree pipit but on closer inspection, the claws are far too long and indicate that this is a Meadow Pipit.
Now here's a couple of photo's of a Tree Pipit (below). It does show the difference on the flanks but I didn't mange to get the great shot that I wanted but I am going back tomorrow and I may be more successful then.
At the site where I am licensed to photograph Peregrines I have, this last two weeks or so been joined by a pair of Kestrels. Yesterday their breeding activities were really ramped up with both birds on the their chosen nest ledge - an old discussed Raven's nest. I watched the female shaping a scrape with her body, in much the same way as the peregrines do and then I observed the male displaying to his mate on the ledge. Then both birds were in an adjacent tree and I was hoping that they would copulate. I have been informed that there will be no conflict between the resident Peregrines but this will be an interesting liaison. The male Kestrel is a feisty bird and I have seen him on several occasions mobbing, or flying at the female Peregrine. He may have a death wish! It will be fascinating if both nests are successful, can you imagine if there are juvenile Kestrels and juvenile Peregrines in the territory together? Well, in fact I am informed by raptor experts that this will not be unusual and there are records of Peregrin adults actually feeding juvenile Kestrels in confusion. Instinct is a great thing and I doubt that the Peregrines can resist the begging calls of the closely related falcon species. Unfortunately the distance from my hide to the nest ledge is quite a big one so the photos are the best I can do. This is the female Kestrel flying from the ledge
Then we have the male and female on the ledge, male in the front he is a young bird and still has a barred tail.
In this one they are displaying to each other, when they do this they call loudly and also continue calling in flight.
In this one the female is on the left. The male has a very peculiar display dance where he bends his knees and bobs up and down.
I am a Schedule 1 licence holder for the territory of this bird.
It would be hard for me to convey in to words how utterly rewarding and exhilarating this photograph is for me. I am very obsessive when it comes to bird photography and I like to make a plan and see it through to get the photo that I have seen in my mind's eye, sometimes for months in advance. This photo was taken from a hide that I built last year overlooking an old oak tree that I know the Peregrines like to visit from time to time. By no means is this a daily occurrence but I reasoned that if I put enough time in then eventually I would get lucky. I have photographed the Tercel from this hide last year and also newly fledged juveniles but I hadn't been lucky enough to photograph the falcon posing nicely.... until today that is. But it has been a very patient 9 hours this last two days! When the opportunity presented itself I had one chance and one chance only. I had been in the hide for a couple of hours and had seen the falcon briefly flying around just now and again and beneath me. I was sat very quietly with my head resting comfortably against the cam netting, I was almost "nodding off" when without any warning or noise, I saw her appear. The camera was already focused right on the branch and almost perfectly in the right place. I immediately pressed the shutter, the bird heard the shutter noise and in the time it's taken for you to read this sentence, she had come and gone. The body and talons are in focus but a slight move of the head just as the shutter was fired makes that part of the photograph slightly soft. If I had been able to take two or three shots I may have had one or two to choose from but never the less it was brilliant to see the falcon so close and to get the photograph. I was really relieved when I saw it because with my 500 lens I managed to get the entire bird in the frame. I guess thats wht you call a frame filling shot!
This is the female Peregrine known as a "falcon".
This last few days have been interesting at my Peregrine Falcon Site - I am licensed by Natural England to photograph there - but what has been disappointing is the apparent failure of the peregrine nest, however the presence of a breeding pair of Kestrels has been brilliant to watch. Yesterday I watched both male and female interacting and taking part in courtship, both in the air and on the rock face. I have to confess that I haven't really taken enough notice of Kestrels before, or rather I should say that I haven't had the opportunity to study them before. Therefore, if they do go on to breed here and I am almost certain that they will, it is going to be very interesting. The other day I had witnessed displaying by one of the pair with a lizard and I had assumed this to be the male bird and when I first saw this bird yesterday I thought it was the female again. But as soon as I saw both birds together it was obvious which was which. Oddly the male has a heavily barred tail, he must be a second year bird and still retaining some of the juvenile feathering as both male and female juveniles have barred tails. So that was something that I have learned about this species already. When they were courting, the male literally flew in at the female, in a play attack and she turned upside down and showed her talons to him to defend herself. I have read about this "play fighting" during courtship. Then they took to the air and very acrobatically swooped around like fighter planes in a dog fight.
This is the male and you can clearly see that it has a barred tail and not solid grey, a sure indication of it's age. In the picture below, the female has a totally different tail and is more evenly brown all over.
The photos are from a distance and its hard to get a good image from the distances involved. Below is the male perched on the rock face and its good to be able to compare the plumage of the two birds.
(A difficult shot from quite a distance.)
I witnessed something really interesting today. I had sat in the hide for an hour or so, hoping to see the Peregrines continuing their breeding activity but at the moment that seems to be a little bit uncertain - to say the least. Then I heard the excited calling of a Kestrel, these last few visits I have seen them on an old Ravens nest and I am sure they are going to breed, or attempt to breed there. I immediately managed to get my camera on to the ledge there. I was pretty sure that it was going to be the male - I have seen both sexes there recently - but no, it was the female. It was carrying a lizard in its beak and it was bobbing up and down, calling loudly. Odd that it had flown to the nest ledge with prey because I would have expected the male to be displaying and delivering prey. It's always massively difficult to anticipate behaviour as usual. What was just as interesting was that prior to the noisy excitement from the Kestrels, I hadn't seen a Peregrine but it seemed that the presence of the smaller falcon had attracted it's attention and it then flew in to the nest ledge. It stood there motionless and the word forlorn crossed my mind. There is still no sign of the tercel and I haven't seen him since last Wednesday which is probably why there seems to be a halt in breeding activity. A big disappointment frankly.
In this part of the world Marsh Tits are one of the rarer species of tit, therefore it's always good when I see one. At my peregrine falcon nestsite I have been putting out a feeder in front of the hide just to make it a bit more interesting when there's not a lot going on. So far I've had some nice birds come to the feeder. There has been blue tits, great tits, great - spotted woodpeckers of both sexes, but so far no nuthatch which is a surprise. But yesterday I was really pleased when a pair of Marsh Tits came to the feeder. As well as being one of the less common tit species in the UK it's also one of the least colourful but nevertheless still very attractive. There are thought to be only around 40,000 breeding pairs of marsh tits in the country and an estimated 3 to 4,000,000 breeding pairs of blue tits. So you can see that your chances of seeing a Marsh Tit is quite slim compared to the much more common blue and great tits, in fact for every 100 blue tits there is a marsh tit! This picture was taken with my 300 lens and is not cropped, the bird being just 3 feet in front of me from inside the hide.
I have a Schedule 1 Licence to Photograph Kingfishers at the nest.
This is a photograph from 2013.
jI've ust been out looking for kingfishers or should I say trying to find their nest and its been a disappointment. I was there for about two hours without any success which is a bit of a frustration really. I searched the bank for a likely looking hole but I couldn't find one even though I was checking very carefully where they had nested successfully last year. There are a few other areas where I suspect they may be nesting and I'm hoping to go and check that out later on today. It's always very frustrating at this time of the year, trying to find a kingfishers nest is hard but well worth it because when you find one it's extremely interesting and the photo opportunities are great. Of course I have a schedule one license to photograph kingfishers at the nest and I am fully conversant with the law and how it applies to photography and kingfishers at their nest territory. The best way to discover a nest is to look for adult birds carrying fish back to their nest. When they are feeding their young they will carry their prey tail first and this is a sure sign that they are feeding youngsters somewhere, then it is just a matter of following them and hopefully pinning down where their nest hole is. But do not do this if you are not licensed for you will be breaking the law. I would not consider myself an expert on the kingfisher but in previous years I have learnt so much about this beautiful species. For example the other evening I was sat by the river looking at a likely nesting site when a couple stopped and spoke to me. They asked what I was looking for, as I had binoculars and was wearing a camouflage jacket. I told them that I was looking for kingfishers but I explained about the law and how this affects people who want to photograph at a nestsite. They then told me that they hadn't even seen a kingfisher previously when suddenly one flew right passed in front of us: they would not have seen it if I hadn't been aware of the call. It flew away down river strongly, they are very fast flyers and they have a large territory this is one of the reasons that is difficult to find their nest. Then after 10 minutes or so it came back in the other direction so I quickly followed it and then I had a really really close up encounter with it as it perched on a branch above the bank right where they had nested in previous years. It seems though that this was just coincidental as I am pretty certain they are not a nesting in that vicinity this year. Kingfishers will have two or three rounds of nests and my records indicate that I found some newly fledged youngsters on May 1 a couple of years ago. I would imagine, using that as an example, that there are Kingfisher nests with quite large chicks at the moment so this is a good time for me to be looking for adults carrying fish prey.
It seems as though the tercel has gone AWOL now and he has’t been seen since the 8th April - 4 days ago. I saw the falcon almost constantly today - I was there for 6 hours - and she spent the majority of time calling and apparently searching for her mate. It is not unusual for the tercel to keep a low profile and I would expect him to put in an appearance very soon. I am confident that the falcon will produce another clutch of eggs but it will be dependent on the tercel’s part in proceedings. I witnessed some very surprising behavior however. The Kestrels were there again and at one point, with the falcon in the adjoining oak, the male Kestrel came in to mob her. It then landed next to the falcon and they both remained in the tree, next to each other for 20 minutes. Eventually the Kestrel flew off and the falcon flew back down on to her nest ledge. Later, the Kestrel flew on to the Raven’s nest and noisily displayed before gliding off.
Please note: I have a Schedule 1Licence to photograph at this Peregrine nest site.
The latest development is not a good one but it's nature in the raw. Having been away for the Easter weekend, I returned to the nest territory at the first opportunity, full of anticipation and without any doubt that the falcon would be sitting her clutch of eggs. It was a shock when I peered on to the ledge to see it vacant with no sign of a Peregrine. I studied the nest scrape and could see no sign of eggs either. I waited and waited but still no bird came to the ledge but after a while I did see both birds who flew from beneath me. At this point it became obvious that there was something seriously wrong and the eggs had probably been predated, the only conclusion that I could come to. I remained in the hide for more than 3 hours though, needing to study the behaviour of the adults. Eventually the falcon came in but avoided the nest ledge. She flew from a spot where she had just been feeding, her crop was bulging with the meal and I watched her wipe her beak on the branch that she was perched on. Having noticed last week that she was really quiet, almost secretive, now she was noisy, again and calling for her mate and also using the breeding call. My one and only hope is that she will go on to produce another clutch of eggs but if she does, will these also be predated? I can only guess as to the culprit but my money would be on the Ravens that I have seen and heard constantly this year. The falcon made no attempt to fly to the nest ledge but instead flew from her tree perch on to a favourite rock on the quarry face where I have photographed her before. Both were perched regularly there at the beginning of March.
I visited again yesterday and it was probably one of the most interesting of the season so far. It wasn’t all about Peregrines though. When I arrived I was pleased to see the falcon standing on the nest ledge, this is a sure indication that she is going to try again and lay another clutch of eggs. However after just a few minutes she flew out of the quarry and out of sight. Then a bird arrived and without me getting a proper view, landed on an old Raven’s nest to the left, but not far from the normal breeding ledge. I trained my optics there and I was surprised to see, not a Peregrine but a female Kestrel. She was clucking in breeding display and bobbing up and down excitedly, surely a sure sign that she is interested in breeding here. Kestrels are known to not only choose a rock ledge as a nest site but they also like to use disused corvids nest so this would normally constitute a perfect nest site. But so close to the Peregrines nest ledge, surely there is bound to be conflict. After flying from the ledge it perched in the nearby oak tree and remained there for an hour or so, even having the audacity to use the Peregrine’s favourite perch. Later, after well over an hour, I heard the clucking call of a Peregrine and the female flew in. The Kestrel, even though well aware of the much larger bird of prey, hardly reacted. With the Peregrine now on the nest ledge, I had the pleasure of having two magnificent falcon species in front of me. The Peregrine worked on her nest and the Kestrel then flew on to her chosen ledge and began to display and call in a very animated way. This is all very interesting and I look forward with a lot of anticipation to discovering the outcome of this alliance. Will they tolerate each other?
There was some excitement when I got to the Peregrine territory yesterday morning but first there was massive deflation because, as I opened the flap of the hide and peered on to the nest ledge, hoping beyond hope that there was going to be a sitting peregrine - there was nothing. I think we are getting to the stage when eggs need to be produced very soon if breeding is going to take place this year and with this falcon being only in her second spring I am beginning to accept that she is too young. Then suddenly, there was a bird of prey, but brown - it was a female Kestrel and it was just above the nest ledge! Perhaps looking for a nest site itself? Would the peregrines accept that, I doubt it? Then as if to confirm my opinion, there was a peregrine, it was the falcon. She had flown in to protect her territory. I fully expected conflict of some sort but she just went on to her nest scrape, did a bit of scratching around, sat still for a minute or two on the nest and then left. Meanwhile, the Kestrel flew back in front of the ledge as if to mob the Peregrine. All very interesting. Then the nest ledge was vacant again? Then the real excitement - there is an egg! With the nest vacant, I used all my optics stacked one on toop of the other. This gives me massive magnification, hardly good enough to publish as a photo but, then using the zoom on the live view of the camera, I could just make out a portion of colour where a tiny fraction of an egg was visible. This is great news and within the space of just a few minutes I went from deflation to elation! But now, as if to make observations really worthwhile, the falcon is away from the ledge and not guarding the precious object at all. If I hadn't seen the egg I would have almost certainly given up the idea of success this year. As was proved when the Kestrel turned up, I can only assume that she is watching carefully from afar.
It was a massive surprise when I got to the hide yesterday, there was no falcon on the ledge and I was sure there was going to be. Trying to work out what was going on is becoming a big frustration, a quandary and a real test of patience. It was at least a week ago that I suspected that there could be eggs in the nest, then as the week has gone on I have been forced into changing my opinion. All I can say is that there is breeding activity on the nest ledge and the falcon wouldn't be there - almost constantly - if she isn’t interested in breeding but quite what the state of play is now, well I am mystified. Two weeks ago the birds were very vociferous with much calling back and forth but now, apart from some clucking calls when the falcon arrives at the nest, they are almost silent.
As well as this, the tiercel's part in proceedings has been reduced to a bit part and he is seen and heard nowhere near as often as he was two weeks - or even a week ago. When the falcon was incubating last year, the tiercel also behaved in this way so I am interpreting his behaviour as positive. The falcon did come to the nest ledge after I had been there 20 minutes though and then she left 35 minutes later, probably to go off to hunt I thought. During her time on the ledge she sat loosely in the nest scrape for a while and then stood next to it for the remainder and like I have said, no tiercel to be seen. As I wrote this yesterday, the falcon - who had returned after a short while - stood motionless by the nest scrape, which is what she did for 9 hours the day before, I guess there must be a reason she is standing there!
At my Peregrine hide I have set up a little feeder so that when I am sitting waiting for action at the nest ledge and things are a little quiet I have got something to keep me interested. it's been good fun and I have started to get some interesting birds coming in. These have included Great-spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and the other usual tit species. Considering that the feeder is less than 3 feet from me when I am in the hide, it was great to have the woodpecker there yesterday. They are still common at the hide area inspite of the Peregrines predating at least - to my knowledge that is - 15 last year. This is a very attractive, some would see exotic species and the wings in flight are particularly striking. You can see how a Peregrine would have very little trouble sighting this species in flight and I would suggest that evolution has dealt a bad hand to the Great-spotted Woodpecker. This is a male by the way. Females have no red on the head and oddly, juveniles are more coloured than both their parents with red on the front of the head.
This is another one of those species that we think of as British but they are widespread across Europe and Asia. They have become more common in the UK in the last 25 years and I have even had the privilege of one on my garden feeder. They are a nuisance in the breeding season because they will break in to the nest boxes of small tits and flycatchers and eat the chicks or eggs, not a very endearing habit. They love peanuts and this is why they can be attracted to the garden and feeders particularly, hence this one feeding from my "hide" feeder. I hope to get more...... many more photos of this species in flight.
I came across this male Chaffinch this morning that was acting in an interesting but perhaps a bit of a stupid way. It had seen it's own image in the wing mirror of a parked car and decided that his reflection was in fact competition for his territory, a sure sign that spring is on the way - well it's almost here already. It was repeatedly banging itself in to the mirror and never cottoned on at all for the 5 minutes I watched it. Quite fascinating really. Its a good time of year to photograph Chaffinch as they are in high breeding condition and look the best that are going to look. I know that some photographers in other countries use carved small bird decoys to attract birds to photograph and I have often thought about doing this and I think that this proves that it would work extremely well although you wouldn't want to do it too much or for too long as it would probably interfere with natural breeding behaviour of the birds that reacted to it.
The tiercel flies fro the nest ledge leaving the falcon to sit on the nest scrape.
I commented that yesterday was the best session of the season so far but that paled in to insignificance compared to today. It seems that incubation has started, the female has started to brood a clutch of eggs. When I arrived at the hide in the early afternoon, at first there was no birds present on the ledge but within minutes the falcon flew in and sat quietly in the scrape. She remained there, sitting on the nest for around 2 hours 30 minutes when suddenly the tiercel landed next to her, he stayed for a minute or so and then flew off and landed on an unusual perch - a dead gorse stump - to the right of the ledge. He remained their posing beautifully for a further 5 minutes or so, all the while screaming loudly. The falcon meanwhile had left the nest and the ledge was quiet for a minute or two, but not for long. The Tiercel was first back but he just landed there and didn't go in to the nest scrape. Then with much screaming, the falcon returned, the tiercel left and then she quickly made her way back on to the nest scrape where she remained, sitting as before. She was still there when I left at 1730. If she is not started incubation then she is very broody and I suspect that either there is a full clutch or she will lay imminently.
The Tiercel perched on a dead gorse.
It had been 4 days since I last saw the tiercel and I had started to think that something was wrong, but I have been at the hide later in the afternoons this week , was this the reason I hadn't seen him? I came to the hide even later today, almost as an afterthought and I am glad I did because it was my best session of the season so far. I witnessed some totally new behaviour - for me that is -from the falcon. She suddenly arrived on the rock face opposite and I knew immediately that she was doing something a bit different. I saw her make her way to a cleft in the rock and then retrieve a stashed kill which she immediately started to eat but only for a minute or so before she flew off with it to consume elsewhere. I know that Peregrines stash uneaten prey but this was exciting to observe for myself. I have seen a peregrine stashing prey before but this is the first time I have witnessed the stash being utilised. With it starting to dim, as afternoon turned to evening, suddenly I heard calling which I haven't heard so much these last few visits, then suddenly, on the ledge, with the tiercel arriving first were both birds. They were both calling the scream call and they bowed and nodded to each other before the tiercel flew off leaving the falcon on the ledge alone, calling to him plaintively. After no response she went in to the nest hollow and carried on calling. She started to brood either an imaginary clutch of eggs or otherwise, but going through the motions nevertheless. Well what an outcome. At first today I was thinking all sorts of negatives and by the end of the session it turned out to be as positive as it could possibly be!
When I departed the Peregrine nest site on Saturday I had left the falcon sat quietly on the nest as if brooding even though I was confident that she hadn't laid yet. I suppose you could describe that as being broody. She had been on the nests for so long that iit did leave me guessing though. I knew that after my visit today I would have a much better idea and I half expected her to be on the nest when I arrived. But, as is normal with birds, quite often it's hard to second guess. Even as I unzipped the hide I could hear a calling bird and I was anxious to see if she was on the nest ledge. Surprisingly, the answer was no! The distant bird kept calling quite excitedly and then there was the "clucking call" so I suspected that there were now two. I settled down to write this on my iPad and I had only written the first sentence when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bird fly to the nest ledge - it was the falcon. After the usual caution, she went on to the nest scrape and then carried out what could only be described as gardening, even using her beak to move some offending small pieces of either rock or bits of soil. So, there you have it, I don't think we have eggs yet. This is my 14th visit to the nest so far since the beginning of March and a total of more than 47 hours, many more to come, we haven't even got an egg yet!
I observed and recorded some very interesting and for me, new behaviour today, but it still required a massive amount of patience.
The tiercel on the nest ledge, almost identical to the photo I took 11 days ago. Compare it to the falcon below.
There was silence for almost an hour after I got there this morning but eventually from nearby, there was almost constant calling that went on for 15 minutes or more. I knew that the one bird had been joined by the other, I could hear two now. Almost immediately, I heard the "clucking" call. Then it was also obvious that they had taken to the air because I heard their clucking from various places above and around me. I caught sight of them in arial courtship, a magnificent spectacle and the first time that I had witnessed it. They were soaring and interacting at a great height and speed, unfortunately I quickly lost sight of them because they were moving so quickly. Then a while later, I knew that they were nearby again, I could hear them "clucking" away and interacting. The tiercel was first to visit the ledge at 1308. It had seemed like a long wait in the cold windy conditions but it was really worth it because he is such a marvellous looking bird. Oddly, he perched in exactly the same spot that I have seen him before. He stayed for a few minutes and then flew off strongly. Then at 1322 the falcon arrived. I wasn’t surprised, I was expecting her, but what did surprise me was that she remained in that position for well over 10 minutes, acting very cautiously and remaining motionless. This was a great opportunity to study her carefully. She is slate blue on the back and I could see that every flight and wing feather was perfect. Each wing covert is barred and edged with a subtle lighter grey. On the back there are a few feathers here and there that are not as blue as others instead they are brownish. Eventually she moved in to the hollow and did some digging with her talons. Then after circling around the hollow for a minute or so, she sat quietly in the nest as if incubating. She remained there for at least 30 minutes and was still there on the nest when I left. Is there an egg?
Today has been little different than the last 10 days or so. The birds were sitting somewhere away from the nest ledge when I arrived and there was calling now and then. After quite a while I knew that there was something about to happen because I heard some interaction with lots of clucking which started to rise in intensity and then to a crescendo. I suspected that mating was perhaps taking place. I anticipated that the falcon would come to the ledge and I was absolutely correct because she flew in right on cue. Her clucking had continued as she flew and then on the ledge she carried it on for a short while. I timed her precisely and she was cautious for 2 minutes exactly, remaining motionless apart from seeming to scan the area to check for safety before she made her way in to the nest scrape and instinctively started to hollow out her nest hollow. She remained on the ledge for getting on for 9 minutes before flying off again. After it was quiet I left the hide carefully and under cover and cautiously went to a few spots higher up with views of the scrape. I was hoping to see if I could see any eggs in the nest but I couldn't get in to a vantage point that gave me a clear view. Once eggs are laid it is going to be interesting to see if the birds sit nearer to the ledge, or on the ledge to guard them. With many Ravens in the territory, I would suspect this to be the case.
The "falcon" on the nest scrape.
The weather was still un-springlike today, cold, misty and overcast. But if the peregrines are to lay around the spring solstice - in 7 days - then surely there will be some interesting behaviour at the nest territory this week. I arrived at the hide at around midday. There were no peregrines on the ledge, nor anywhere else nearby as far as I knew but after 30 minutes or so, I heard my first bird of the day. I was very pleased to see fresh guano on the ledge, a sure indication that the birds had spent time there recently and I was confident that I could see fresh earth where the nest scrape had been worked. It seems that the birds are spending their resting time well away from the ledge and in the woodland opposite. I hear them calling from there frequently. I am now quite confident that they will nest on the ledge that they have used in the previous 4 years, but it would be nice to see them on the nest more often.
After an hour in to my session, both birds suddenly arrived on the ledge but their behaviour was interesting. The falcon immediately flew off, leaving the tercel on his own who went into the hollowed scrape but didn't stay long either. There is the constant croaking of Ravens nearby and I suspect they are building a nest in the trees opposite. It's interesting to note that the peregrines are oblivious to the activities of the Ravens, displaying a total indifference to their presence. Buzzards are also very evident and their calls are regular and close by.
Just a reminder, I am licensed by Natural England to photograph at the nest territory of this Schedule 1 species.
At the Peregrine nest yesterday it was a very quiet session although I did have the male (tercel) in front of me for most of it. I heard him call but in the dank conditions I couldn't see him at first but I knew he was there somewhere. After a few minutes, I located him sitting quietly on the old oak in one of the favourite perches where I have seen both birds on numerous occasions over the last 3 years. Oddly, this is the the first time I have seen them there this year though. It sat there for more than 2 hours just doing nothing, but it seemed quite alert, as though he was keeping watch. I have a another little hide that would have given me great views in front of that tree but I would not have been able to get in to it without disturbance, particularly when he was so alert. My camera is working remarkably well this year so I am quiet content with the shots I took of him. Yesterday I had seen that he thad a blood soaked talon and he has today as well. Also, note the bulging breast, this is an indication that he has recently fed, the bulge is food in the crop. I really love this pretty little Tercel, I have seen him for 4 years running and feel I know him well. He is a lazy bird who does not waste any energy and seems to spend lots of his time just sitting around. In fact, Peregrines do sit resting for hours on end. This will be because of the food they eat. Once fed, they then need to allow it to pass through from the crop and in to the stomach and then of course, this needs to digest. A long process compared with other birds who have a fast digestive transit and need to feed often. The food they eat dictates their behaviour, hence birds of prey, particularly Peregrines do not need to search for food constantly and consequently this dictates their seemingly lazy behaviour. Sitting on one leg like he is in the picture above is a sure sign that he is at rest and relaxed.
Tercel on the nest ledge. For those interested in photograph..... taken with a 500 lens with 2 stacked 1.4 converters to get in close. Mirror up on the camera, a small image which helps to eliminate noise and remote shutter release to ensure that the there is absolutely no movement. (Note the blood on the talon?) Distance at least 75 metres. The more I look at this image the more I like it!
(My note from the hide yesterday.)
Its early March but spring is on the way and nesting activity is already taking place particularly the early nesters such as Dipper and of course the Peregrines that I have a Schedule 1 License to photograph. Here is the details from yesterday's exciting session. (On MondayI had seen the Falcon (female that is) on last years nest ledge which was really good.)
(My notes from the hide yesterday.) "When I arrived it was overcast and damp, unlike yesterday when the conditions had been bright and sunny. It was going to be interesting to see if yesterday’s spring-like weather had induced interest in breeding and if today's dullness would literally dampen their ardour. On arrival there was no sight or sound of peregrines. Therefore, I was a little surprised when, after 15 minutes or so, I heard a peregrine using the "clucking call." The clucking call is associated with breeding activity and I have heard it regularly this year. I suspected that the falcon was about to arrive but I was wrong. There, on the ledge was the tercel! It stayed for no more than two minutes but remained silent, you can see how he behaved in the video. After it had flown off I could hear it calling in the woodland opposite with the usual "scream" call. This was an interesting couple of minutes because it proved that both sexes use this call. The video shows that a short while later, the falcon arrived on the ledge. After being extremely cautious for several minutes, she walked on to the nest and began to form the nest hollow using her feet to scratch out the earth and then her body to form the shape."
I visited my Peregrine Falcon site this afternoon, my 6th visit since I started my 2015 observations having been granted my Schedule 1 License for this year. Things are going well and on my last two visits I have seen both birds at the nest site constantly. Eggs are usually laid in the last week of March so it is well worth watching at the moment. I want to record some mating and courtship behaviour so I have been putting in the time, hoping to get lucky.
It has been interesting to see how incredibly alert the falcon is compared to the much more relaxed and "chilled" tercel. My camouflaged hide blends in perfectly and can't be seen even from 20 feet. In addition I have a camo corridor, 20 feet long and leading in to the back of the hide. This enables me to get in to the hide completely undetected. However there is then the tricky problem of not being detected when looking out of the hide. Today, the tercel was totally relaxed and remained so but the falcon was suspicious and I saw her fly around in front of me before eventually, after a few minutes, settling down on the perch where I have seen her before. The tercel meanwhile was on a perch right next to a very likely looking ledge in exactly the same place that I watched it for 3 hours on Saturday 7th. Could this be this years breeding ledge? Only time will tell and I am sure I will find the answer in the next week or so.
I would like to invite you to bookmark the Blog and check back regularly because I hope to Blog as often as I can and record the entire season. It isn't that common to have the opportunity to report from a rural peregrine nest site and I am immensely privileged. I want be able to share my observations with as many people as I can. Here's the tercel (thats the male). Just a reminder that I am a Schedule 1 License holder which allows me to photograph at this site and without this license I would be breaking the law.
The Tercel today.
I have been back from South Africa for exactly a week now. Its nice to be back in the UK and exciting to know that spring is on the way and with that, the breeding season. I have started observations at my Peregrine site for the fourth year running. (I am a holder of a Schedule 1 license to photograph peregrines at this nest territory.) This year I have deliberately decided to spend time watching and observing before egg laying commences. I want to record and photograph the entire breeding cycle. I am putting together an eBook and I need to photograph courtship and nest site selection etc.
My first visit was on Monday and I spent 2 hours 30 minutes sat in the hide that I had prepared before I left for South Africa at the end of January. I have made provision to get into the hide undercover so as not to disturb the peregrines that may be nearby. Peregrines have eyesight that is 18 times more powerful than a human's and it is incredibly difficult to get in to the hide without being seen. Even though my license allows for disturbance it would be totally alien to the way I conduct myself if I did. In addition, any disturbance, or even if the birds had any idea that I was there would make my visit pointless. The birds would just leave and sit somewhere else. On Monday I saw both birds and heard them calling but didn't manage to get any photographs. Tuesday was another 2 and a half hour session. The weather was cold with wintery showers. From a distance I saw a bird as a dot which got bigger and bigger, it was a peregrine flying at real speed and with real purpose. It flew right past the hide to perch on the rock face. It was the tercel and it was was totally sheltered from the conditions under an overhang. Obviously, once the snow and sleet started, it hurried back to a perch that it remembered where it would offer some shelter. This one piece of behaviour told me a great deal about the intelligence of this bird Remembering, as it did where there was a dry perch, it flew back at great speed to get in to a dry spot.
Wednesday was a total waste of time and I spent 4 hours 30 minutes without sight or sound of a bird which was demoralising and disappointing. Thursday was not too much better but I did hear and see the tercel. In all the hours that I watched though, I did not see any activity at the nest ledge that they used last year. I didn't go on Friday but today was very successful and from the moment I arrived in to the hide I could see a peregrine. It was the tercel, I took a few photos and sat back, pleased that I had a peregrine in front of me after so much watching this week. After an hour it hadn't even moved it's position and was sat in the same place as it was when I arrived. Then with a clucking contact call, there was the falcon perched just 3 feet from it. This was good because it is the first time this season that I have seen the falcon properly. Quite amazingly both birds sat on the same perches for the next 2 hours hardly moving except to preen. During that time there was a little bit of interaction between them as well, the falcon bowing and "displaying" to the male. This was a surprise and interesting because I would have expected the male to display to the female, not the other way around.
So in total I have watched for 15 hours and seen the birds for 3 of them, 20% of my time , so considering that nesting has not quite got underway, that's not too bad.
The Falcon today.
I had a good morning down at the park yesterday. I got up early and decided to go to see if I could get some good in-flight shots of the swallows in flight, how hard can it be? Trust me, very tricky indeed. These little birds fly at quite a speed and to try to get them in focus as they fly by is a real challenge. What makes it all the more tricky is the distracting backgrounds of reeds which distracts the lens which wants to focus on the background rather than the bird.....the birds are moving at speed and the reeds are static! I was absolutely thrilled when I saw that, at last I had managed to get my best ever result, this was really satisfying.
As I stood waiting for a good opportunity I suddenly realised that there was a Pied Kingfisher sat in the reeds and posing beautifully. This is a species that I have also seen often before, particularly in Sri Lanka and even here the other day when I actually watched a pair. They are a common Kingfisher both in Africa and Asia and even in countries that fringe the Mediterranean so it is perhaps a mystery that we don't get them in Europe? This is probably a species that can't cope with a cold winter climate. They are very impressive.
This is a bird that I encounter quite a lot on my travels. It is a common(ish) bird of Sri Lanka as well as here in Cape Town. In the harbour, not far from where I am staying, you can always see them. They occupy the roof of the Nelson Mandela Gateway Building and from there they dive in to the harbour to either bathe or fish. They seem to bring food back in to the roof of the building and could even, quite possibly be breeding there. I believe that they breed on Robben Island and are numerous there also. We will be travelling there tomorrow so it will be good to see them. I took numerous photographs of this species yesterday afternoon and early evening, trying very hard to get shots of them as they entered the water, with varying degrees of success.
I was hoping for some really magical photographs of these birds but found it so difficult to focus on them as they entered the water. In the one below, I think the bird is just dunking in to bathe with it's head turned on the side.
I have become absolutely fascinated with the Swallows here in South Africa, all the way from Europe of course and many thousands of miles away from there. Barn Swallows "winter" in Africa as far as Cape Town and then fly north to breed in Europe. Quite why evolution has decided that this is a good strategy for these birds is a mystery. It is a mammoth migration and yet the local White throated Swallows that are almost identical in every way, breed here quite successfully, so why do Barn Swallows undertake such an exhausting migration twice in every 12 months? I have been seeing lots of Barn Swallows almost everywhere I look but particularly by the coast where they are flying low of the beaches and feeding on the small insects that abound on beaches, the insects attracted by decaying kelp. I thought at first that these swallows were building up reserves ready for their migration north which should surely take place soon? Then I realised that I have not seen one single adult swallow in full colour, all the birds that I have seen are in juvenile colour or half way between the adult and juvenile plumage stage. It occurred to me that these birds are not going to migrate and will stay here for the South African winter (the UK and Europe summer). Perhaps, and probably, all the adult swallows have already moved north? I would really appreciate any comment about this as it is a fascinating subject.
In flight, the birds are really hard to photograph but I spent an hour or two yesterday while my wife sunbathed, trying to achieve the pinnacle of bird photography, that is........swifts and swallows in flight. I had my first real success of that yesterday. The light was incredibly bright and the reflections from the sand were hard to deal with as well, but the photos, as well as freezing the wings in flight, also show how bright it was.
The Sand Martin - Riparia riparia is such a lovely delicate little bird that I am always so pleased to see at home on the River Exe and close to my home. When I saw this species (above) I thought it actually was a Sand Martin because you do get them here this far south in Africa. But in actual fact it is a very closely related species, the Brown-fronted Martin. This is a bird that breeds here in South Africa and is only a partial migrant whereas the Sand Martin is a migrant in the UK and spends the winter months in the African summer. Here is a photograph of a Sand Martin that I took on the River Exe in the UK.
This is a lifer for me, one of 6 or so for this trip. Apparently it's not a rare bird in these parts but perhaps hard to see when it is very bright as they blend in very easily to a white sandy beach. This one is in actual fact two different birds, there were three in total on the beach at Rooiels yesterday. It was as bright as it could be with a 50 mph wind whipping up the sand like a desert sandstorm. Even the plovers had their eyes shut to protect themselves. This bird is tiny, marginally just a tad larger in size than a plump sparrow.
There is a darker form of this species and you can just about discern some nice buff colour to the breast on this individual. All in all, this is a great bird for me to add to my gallery of birds and I am pleased to photograph it.
We have had a busy, busy last few days and I have found it hard to find time to "blog" as normal. Take yesterday for example, I went looking for an exotic bird called a Rockjumper but I wasn't successful, I will go back another day. However, at Betty's Bay, the other well known African Penguin Colony I spent a very entertaining hour photographing penguins as they came in an out of the water. It's hard to imagine that the penguins here are wild because they are so unconcerned about people. The ones that I watched and photographed yesterday were standing on a jetty and coming and going even though I sat near to them. They were not in the least bit concerned about me , or the other people, coming and going in a constant stream. As a wildlife lover this is quite a thrilling thing to do and it must be one of the best wildlife experiences you could possibly have. The African Penguins here are truly wild and chose to be there in spite of the presence of people. My instinct would be to give them more separation from the public but, like I said, they chose where to exit the water and it does not matter if people happen to be standing there, they still come out of the water and then carry on preening and resting in a very relaxed manner. The photographic opportunities are incredible. Take the picture above which is not even cropped or specially framed and I could just about get this posing female in the frame. The birds yesterday were in brilliant and healthy condition and looked even plump.
The young birds are interesting and from a distance they look a little bit like a cormorant, they are dark without the white on the head but they have a totally different beak shape but already have the white markings on the beak just like the adults.
The Little Grebe is a species that we are all quite familiar with in the UK so here in South Africa, some 8954 miles away it was a surprise to see them commonly here. We were in the midst of a quiet day today and we suggested a trip to the local park. I took my camera with me of course and it was a good job I did because I suddenly realised that in the reeds and very close, was a nest complete with some tiny fledged chicks. They were being fed by both parents and it was really interesting to see the behaviour as they bought little fish to the youngsters. With the water quite clear I could see how quickly they can swim underwater, swimming for quite a distance back to the chicks and the nest area. There was also some weird aggressive behaviour from the female to the male. With the light much better at sunset I am going to return in the next 20 minutes or so to see what the light is like, it should be flooding on to the nest. As well as the grebe nest I also discovered a pair of Pied kingfisher, the first I have seen in South Africa but now I have seen this species in Sri Lanka, Gambia and here in Cape Town. This pair were skulking in the reeds which was quite a surprise because during the day on a Saturday there were literally hundreds of people around. I managed to get a shot through the reeds just for the record.
I was quite excited when I saw this species. We were by the lighthouse at the top of Cape Point and hearing out to sea when just at our feet and posing beautifully was this stunning little bunting which I recognised immediately. The background is not adjusted at all, thats what the scene was with the bird posing on the top of the rock and isolated from the background. Being rather fond of buntings I have photographed 9 different species in the family now. This is a great addition for me and I would have been disappointed not to see one on the trip to Cape Point because they are described as common there. In fact there were even one or two feeding beneath the tables of the cafe! Here's one of these below but the picture above shows the back markings as well as the head of course.
This is a Rock Martin, a lifer for me which I photographed from the edge of a cliff at Cape Point National Park the other day, it is one of at least 3 new species of hirundines and Swifts photographed (with varying degrees of success on this trip). This is a slow flying martin which made it possible to get a photograph. Last evening I saw a couple of Little Swift fly past the the apartment, I went for the camera but they didn't return unfortunately.