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.
This little beauty was in the garden first thing this morning, a Southern Double - collared Sunbird, a male but not in full colour.
Today was a day of amazing coincidences and real sadness. I had a message to say that Mick, my friend from my Royal Yacht days had passed away this morning, how awful that is and it has put a massive damper on my day of course. He was a great bloke and a character who was loved by everyone who knew him. Everything else seems a bit pathetic and unimportant now.
I have had a few more problems with the internet again, so sorry for lack of posts.
Yesterday was all about Malachite Kingfishers and I tried very hard to record some nice flight shots with a bit of success. When I arrived at Intake Island specifically to photograph Kingfishers, there was a small brown bird perched on one of the 3 perches. I had time to set up the camera on the tripod and take pictures even though it took a couple of minutes. It was a martin but I am yet to identify it accurately, but definitely a new species for my gallery. Then as I had the the bird in the viewfinder, it left to be replaced by a Malachite Kingfisher. I had only been there for 2 minutes and already a Kingfisher was here, thats the way I like it!
This one was a juvenile for certain. I had two cameras set up, both on tripods but both adjusted in different ways. I attached a remote shutter release to one and set it specifically for a flight shot, the other was set up for a good portrait. In the end this worked out really well, what one camera failed to capture the other was a success. The light is so bright though and all of the pictures show that. Eventually this little Kingfisher paid several visits. It was fishing and diving in to the weedy water. It emerged with not only a small fish but also, on three occasions, dragonfly larva. In the picture below you can see it has one in the beak as it arrives at the perch. This is a tiny bird, just 13 centimetres (5.1 in) in length, in comparison the Common Kingfisher is around 17 centimetres (6.7 in.) so you could say that the Malachite is a head and shoulders smaller!
They dive at an incredibly fast speed and capturing that moment in the Common Kingfisher is considered to be the epitome of success but the Malachite, being smaller seemed even faster so I had a quite a job on my hands to nail it but in straight flight it was a little easier but still a challenge.
It was interesting to see that they deal with their prey in the same manner as other Kingfishers by beating on the perch to kill and soften the prey before tossing in the air to swallow and I captured this moment.
We went up to the top of Table Mountain yesterday, 1085 metres high. Ascent was by cable car which only took a few minutes and was quite an experience. The whole cable car event reminded me of Florida's Disneyland only for real, but it was very well organised, but needed to be as each car contained 64 passengers and I estimated at 4 an hour. It cost more than £12 each for the "up and back down" trip. So around 250 people an hour, thats £3000. So imagine, if its running full for 8 hours each day, that's getting on for £672000 each month....I hope they are spending it wisely! Once there, the Disney feel continued but after walking away from the throngs it was a pleasant experience and remarkably full of wildlife. The views were just amazing and on a short walk along specially marked out paths......Disney again.....we started to get away from, at least some of the crowds. The German accents mingled with the Geordie and the French with Southern USA drawl..... funny that they always seem to be loudest!
The first animal seen was a rare lizard, rare because the only place it can be found is here in the Cape, a Black Girdled Lizard, black to help it absorb heat on a chilly day at 3000 feet when the mountain is covered in cloud.
There were a few birds and I sat and waiting for sunbirds to show, I could hear them and occasionally one would fly by quickly, only to disappear again in to the low scrub, but back at the cliff face, by the cable car, gift shop and restaurant, I paused to try to photograph the myriads of swifts, thick in the air. I struggled to name the species, there were several different ones, as well as photograph them but one species that I am confident in naming was White Rumped Swift. Not a good enough photo for here but I will try again another day. You have got to admire people that get any good photo of the aptly named swift. Suddenly I spotted the highlight of the trip for me, a male Cape Rock Thrush posing beautifully just beneath. This is a an endemic species and a lifer for me..... my £12 was well spent!!!!!
Before our descent to ground level I photographed White necked Raven, there was a small pack. This bird had an almost bird of prey like profile and I thought thats what it was. Its a big bird with a massive beak and a bold white patch very visible. I didn't do well photographically with this species either but I have some record shots..... I apologise for the quality.
Oh.... did I mention the Rock Hyrax, "dassie" to the locals. This guinea pig like animal is a strange little beast. They were quite numerous around the cable car station but not in other areas? I will let the photos do the talking but just a few facts. Scientists take great delight in telling you that they are related to elephants.....oh really? They are very interesting though, they even have odd incisors that are reminiscent of tusks. Cape Town's Table Mountain is one of the best places in the world to see this unusual mammal.
Male Orange breasted Sunbird
Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is a Word Heritage site and yet another jewel in Cape Town' crown. I went there yesterday afternoon with the specific intention of photographing Sunbirds. The garden, with the numerous flowering trees and shrubs is home to several species and are easy to find. They are a real exotic bird, particularly males of each species. They have metallic iridescent plumage, long sharp bills and extending tongues which they use to extract and then drink nectar from blooms. I am very attracted to them and have seen and photographed them in Australia, Israel, Sri Lanka, Gambia and of course here in Cape Town.
It was a big success, we started the visit with lunch in the garden restaurant and even as we sat drinking our coffee a Sunbird flew in to the herbaceous border. It's focus was a Red Hot Poker flower, later on as the sun dipped down behind Table Mountain there was a constant stream of Double Bar Sunbirds flying to drink from the flowers in a border. The light was perfect and I not only got a big thrill out of watching them, I also took some quite special photographs.
Earlier on we had sat on a garden bench overlooking other flowering shrubs and I had been lucky to be really close to an Orange Breasted Sunbird that was in eclipse plumage. That's to say, a bird that was either a youngster moulting in to iridescent adult plumage, or an adult moulting out of its finery in to its wintering duller garb.
Male Southern Double-barred Sunbird
Female Southern Double barred Sunbird
Photo courtesy of Jenny Fleming
Yesterday was probably one of those days that I will remember for the rest of my life. I can't emphasise enough how beautiful it is here. We went to Simons Town to check out the parking etc for a pelagic bird trip that I have booked.... 2years ago I had photographed Albatross, petrel and shearwater, so got to go again..... However just up the road from there is the world famous African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach. However, with this being a tourist attraction and populated with coach loads of visitors who are only there because it is on the tourist bucket list, I hadn't really enjoyed it on my previous visit. In addition, the penguins are so close to the boardwalk and familiar with the tourists that it is hard to get any good natural looking shots. We decided to drive just a short distance down the beach road and stop at one of the bays further on. This was a very wise and clever choice. The scenery was stunning, clear turquoise sea and white sand with the large boulders all set off by the mountains close in land. We were pretty much the only people on the beach and it was gorgeous, what could have improved this? Well, that was easy, half a dozen African Penguins thats what!!!!!
I sat on a boulder with my camera trained on them, adults and one sub-adult, standing still on the rocks opposite and all this in this pristine and beautiful environment. I waited for them to give me something good to photograph and when one of the adults got a little fed up of the younger bird a mini fight broke out,
This is a bird that I have always been interested in because when I was much younger they were very commonly kept in captivity and you would see them in just about any bird dealers shop. This was sad really because most would not have been looked after properly and they never bred in captivity. This is a bird that has a very interesting breeding cycle. They are a brood parasite and lay their eggs in the nests of small waxbill finches. The female is totally sexually dimorphic and does not resemble the male in any way except in the non breeding season when he loses all his finery and finishes up looking like the smart, but drab female. The tail is fluttered around like streamers and is almost twice the length of the birds body. It constantly flutters in the wind both when at rest and in flight. When I watched yesterday, this male was very territorial and chased off all other intruders when he spotted them. This included even a Cape Bulbul which is probably 3 times it's size. As someone who is really interested in birds rather than just as photographic subjects I can't describe what pleasure it gave me to see this very familiar but wild bird acting naturally rather than the way I got to know the species.Overtime the female was spotted by the male he would flutter around her not giving her any peace whatsoever, she seemed to only have time to herself when he was off chasing away intruders. It is difficult to judge size in a species but as a guide, the female below is larger than a willow warbler but smaller than a house sparrow.
......and so much more. When I had been here in Cape Town two years ago I had visited Intaka Island Nature Reserve on several occasions hoping to photograph Malachite Kingfishers, I was almost successful but I hadn't got any "killer" shots. I was disappointed then. In front of the public hide at this nature reserve, there are three perches which are used by the resident breeding Malachites and it was then just a waiting game but they never did fly in then. This year it was different! I went yesterday..... incidentally my blog has been down and I couldn't post this yesterday evening.... I had been in the hide for just half an hour or so, it was around 1015, suddenly with a fanfare of calls, as is usual with kingfishers, there it was in front of me. It was a wow moment...only a word I have used about 3 times on the blog in 7 years! I took the usual plethora of photos hoping that I was going to record a good pose. The light was incredibly bright and not very accommodating really but I think I "nailed it" as they say. The first bird that landed was a juvenile I think, then, an hour later, the fanfare was sounded again and in flew another and if I had to guess, I would say that this was one was an adult male, (above). The juvenile is the bird below, I am assuming that the dark on the beak is diagnostic of a young bird, it also had smokey markings on the red feet which the Common Kingfisher (laced athis) would have, but I am only guessing.
I know that the Egyptian Goose is not uncommon even in the UK now with feral breeding populations, I have seen them there and also in Florida but it's good to see them in their own country, in fact really nice.
It was interesting to photograph one swimming the other day and also to see small goslings in the park. I have mentioned them on the blog so that I can post this nice photograph. The sexes are the same but apparently males are slightly larger.
The Fiscal is a Shrike species, very common here in Cape Town and can even be seen in gardens and on the rooves of houses and fences. They seem to be solitary and use exposed perches as a look out for prey which would be crickets, grasshoppers and even small lizards like the Cape Skink that I posted a picture of yesterday. I also suspect that they are probably territorial. Green Point Park, which was part of the FIFA World Cup regeneration, really is a beautiful park. It adjoins a golf course as well as the Cape Town Stadium. I saw a Fiscal there yesterday as we walked in to the park and then when we came home again, much later, the same bird was on the fence and I used the cover of a tree very close to it to get a really good look at it. I am sure that I will see them lots more while I am here in the next few weeks but I doubt I will get a better photo opportunity.
I haven't had the time or the opportunity to do too much birding yet but with a 4 week stay I am going to have plenty of opportunity. Yesterday we travelled to the lovely town of Stellenbosch and visited the peaceful Botanical gardens which were strangely devoid of even one single bird! In fact for our entire 3 hours in the town I didn't see or hear even one either. I have no theory for this. The gardens were nice and I photographed a young Cape skink (Trachylepis capensis) which was feeding on ants. I also saw and photographed 2 different dragonflies, one I have been able to put a name to. On our drive from Stellenbosch to the airport I had many sightings of interesting birds, Cape Francolin, Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill and Yellow- billed Kite being the highlights but only tantalising glimpses from the car. from the balcony of the apartment here, although we have only one tree which is large but grows from the adjoining property, my garden list is growing. We have had Cape White-eye, Double-barred Sunbird, Cape Bulbul, Red-winged Starling with "fly-bys" including Fiscal Shrike, Little Swift, Barn Swallow, Speckled Pigeon, European Starling as well as Hartlaubs and Kelp Gull, so quite a good list.
I don't know the name of this Dragonfly (above) yet but the one below is Urothemis assignata.
The base for our Cape Town trip is my Brother-in-Law's apartment, perched just underneath the slopes of Signal Hill overlooking Cape Bay. The view is stunning, watch the panorama video, sure you will be impressed.
Yesterday was hot and endlessly sunny with the thermometer touching 32 centigrade. Birding was limited but all the usual common birds were seen, we went for lunch in Hout Bay in a restaurant that overlooks the harbour where Cape Fur Seals move amongst fishing boats and take free offerings from beggars who invite tourists......me,that is.....to take photos of the performance which I didn't by the way, preferring to see the Fur Seals acting naturally.
The most common gull in Cape Town is Hartlaubs Gull which is like a Black-headed Gull in the UK and Europe but without the black head. They are noisy with a very similar call and an attractive species with a lovely eye.
So far I haven't done any birding whatsoever so its been a good start without even trying.
I awoke this morning at 5.30 local time, it was almost light and as it got brighter I sat on the balcony with my coffee, birds were around and it wasn't long before I had the chance to photograph a Red-winged Starling. This one was a female which has a grey head and cape. This is an unpopular species here because this early summer they tried to make a nest in the basement garage, making an awful mess. But, I think that this is a nice species and quite photogenic.
I am away again on my travels......it's Wednesday 28th. We boarded the National Express Bus to Heathrow for our flight to Cape Town via Johannesburg, back to my brother in laws house and a month away. The bags were packed with 3 lenses, 2 cameras a flash unit, remote triggers, tripod and tripod head, external hard drives, new iMac and of course the ipad!
After a good flight on South Africa Airways we arrived in Cape Town, almost 24 hours door to door. With a bit of, well..... not jet lag but lack of sleep, I sat on the lovely balcony of Tony's apartment which overlooks Table Bay and in the distance, Robin Island, our home for the next month. I couldn't resist birding from this gorgeous position and already I have watched Red-winged Starling, Fiscal Shrike and several hirundines and photographed my first ever Little Swift.... (photos not too good but sure I will get better), and all from the couch, how good is that?
We went for walk on the seafront and on the way back after a couple of pints of lovely Peroni lager I still had my wits about me and photographed these gorgeous roosting White Throated Swallows. If this is the start, then its going to be another great trip.
This is an adult....
....and a juvenile....
It had just started to rain at lunchtime when Dave Land called me to say that there were 2 Berwicks Swan on the marsh which could be viewed from the gate near to the RSPB Car Park. I hadn't photographed this species in Devon before so, a new species for my Devon Bird Gallery was on offer. I hopped in to the birding car and I was quickly down there to join Dave Land, Dave Stone and a couple of other brave souls. The rain was hammering down and it was horribly cold as well. The good news though was the birds were still there and showing very well not too far away in the field as well. The only thing was, they weren't Berwicks Swans but Whoopers! This wasn't a disappointment for me because I hadn't photographed that species before either. I had literally siddled up to the gate when out of the ditch very close, I took few photos, not everyone had see it and it was quickly disturbed and flew off unfortunately. The swans were mingling with Canada Geese and a few Mute Swans, feeding voraciously on the grass. I was taken with them immediately, a lovely elegant swan with the yellow markings on the beak standing out against the green of the meadow.
Some really interesting facts about this species.
I sat for 2 hours this afternoon, dressed in 5 layers of clothes which I needed as the temperature was just 2 degrees. 2 hours was just about as much as I could stand. I was hoping to photograph one of the Water Rail that I knew were resident there, I could hear them calling regularly but today they didn't come out from their cover. It wasn't unpleasant though and I did have a bit of fun honing my photography skills by snapping away at the resident Moorhens. If this species was rare we would be raving about it because it is a very striking and attractive bird with a very brightly coloured yellow tipped intense red bill.
I have been doing some work on photoshop, learning how to get the very best out of my images and I can only feel very excited to think that I am going to do even more with my photos. These Moorhen photos prove the point I think.
It was cold and a little showery with a strong wind yesterday, but when the sun did shine it was really bright and clear. I went back out to Turf at the end of the Exeter Ship Canal to try for more photographs of the Grey Plovers, but again I didn't have success. I coincided my trip with high tide but it was a neap tide and this meant that it didn't come in to the level that would have brought the birds to the shore edge posts. So I needed to do something else. In previous years I had watched and photographed Red Breasted Merganser feeding in the channel that leads to the lock gate. When I looked there was a merganser just as I hoped. I managed to get myself in to a position with the sun behind me and it wasn't long before this female Merganser started to dive for prawns right in front of me. I would not have been successful if I had not covered myself with cam netting. It was a really interesting hour or so as I watched it dive down repeatedly. Every now and then it would catch something and after, when I had looked at my photos, I could see that the prey was large prawns. After a while she went down the stream with the current and had a rest, sleeping with her had on her back as she floated on the water. However, I had been enjoying watching her so much that I decided to wait and see if she came back to fish again. I sat there under cover waiting and suddenly, within feet of me and in brilliant light, an equally brilliant Kingfisher landed but when I moved to try and photograph it, it was disturbed and flew off again. Then all of a sudden there was a Little Grebe, I saw it dive straight away and even though I watched and watched, I never did see it again. As if that wasn't enough, suddenly, a drake Red breasted Merganser was here with me now. This bird wasn't aware of me either and start to dive just in front . It surfaced from its dive and wrestled with a crab, removing the legs before swallowing and then repeating the process with another successful dive. Then, walkers arrived and the male flew away hurriedly leaving the more confiding female on her own who decided that she would avoid detection by diving down and staying under as long as she could. It worked and the walkers moved on none the wiser about the ducks or me for that matter. What a great session his turned out to be. This was real wildlife working to survive and I felt privileged to observe all of this behaviour. I not only got to photograph the birds but I got a really good insight in to the feeding habits and prey items of this duck species.
It seems quite a struggle for the birds to remove the legs of the crabs before swallowing but can you imagine how hard that is without losing the prey again.
You can clearly see the serations on the beak of this duck. They are refered to as sawbills, along with Goosander who also feed on fish and obviously, crustaceans. The sawbill is used to hold on to slippery prey.
Then he gets disturbed by hikers who are not even aware of him before he flies off as quickly as he can. I knew he would and I quickly adjusted my camera so that I could get a good sharp image of him in flight.
The female remained and she was feeding prawns as you can see.
The female is not nearly as brightly coloured as the male and would be referred to as sexually dimorphic, like a Blackbird.......black in the male and brown in the female! Other examples of non dimorphic species would be the Eurasian Robin where the sexes are identical in plumage.
A subject that is easier than most to get a nice photo of. They are never, or hardly ever confiding though and a good degree of fieldcraft is still needed if you want success,unless you are photographing from a public hide. This bird flew in to land in front of me yesterday as I sat under cam netting and I was able to get some nice shots. This bird is more than likely overwintering here from the breeding grounds on mainland Europe. We even have birds on the estuary here that are known, by ringing, to breed as close as Holland. One interesting fact that ringing has proved is that the same pairs meet up again, year after year, after overwintering in different countries and in some cases different continents. The pairs mate for life only being together during the breeding season. This is one of those amazing facts that I find truly fascinating. The Redshank is in the family Tringa which includes some very interesting species such as Lesser Yellowlegs, Greenshank, Spotted Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper.
I had a great encounter with a female Kingfisher this morning, making all my effort and planning well worthwhile. Way back before Christmas I had planned to photograph the Dunlin and Grey Plover that perch in a very photogenic place at Turf on the River Exe. This is where the Exeter Ship Canal joins the river. At this spot there has to be a combination of events to give a good chance of a photo. First of all, the tide must be high during the daytime, this is when the wading birds will be roosting and using some old stumps that stand proud of the water (see link below.) The weather needs to be good with some sunshine ideally and the most important thing is the presence of something to photograph….a bird or two. Today all the elements were in place with the exception of the Grey Plover, they didnt show for some reason. My strategy is to tuck myself in to a hole overlooking the stumps and then cover myself with cam netting. I wasn't entirely sure that this was working until firstly, a Redshank flew in just beneath me and then, like the holy grail, the female Kingfisher that I had seen yesterday, landed right on the stump that I hoped the Plovers would use. In fact if you look at the link below, you can see that the plover is on the very same stump as the Kingfisher. This was a great encounter and all the more interesting because just before Christmas (25 days ago), I had photographed a male here, see the link below also. It seems as though this pair have started to associate with each other and as breeding season approaches, it would be good to actually see the two together.
As I sat there stuffed in to this little hole in the ground for more than 2 hours in 2 or 3 degrees, even though I was getting stiffer, colder and more cramped, I reminded myself of how much I prefer this kind of photography. In the last week I have photographed Penduline Tit and Snow Bunting, both species that presented very little challenge really, they were just there and in the case of the Penduline, you needed to be lucky and be there when they were. Both species were very confiding and on show for anyone with a camera to snap away at, whereas, with this kind of photography, you need to use some kind of guile, planning and a lot of effort and it is frankly, far, far more rewarding. As you can see....it was quite windy as well.
I have to say that I am massively excited and pleased with this photograph that I took today. It was wet, windy and a typical British winters morning when I made my way out to meet my friend Dave Land who had rung me earlier to tell me of a Snow Bunting close to Powderham Church on the Exe Estuary. I felt like an arctic explorer as I battled against the wind and the driving rain, very fitting as I was on my way to see an arctic bird. Dave had just had a disaster, his camera was blown over on the tripod by the strong gusty wind, and the Canon plastic body didn't stand the impact and smashed almost in half. I really felt for him having damaged three cameras myself in total in such a way. There is always the thoughts of "if only" but fate will always win and eventually you will have an accident. Anyway, the bird was a lovely thing and in common with all arctic species, very confiding. I had read somewhere that Shore Lark, if you get very low and lay down, think the you are a four legged animal such as the Reindeer that they are familiar with and this is exactly what reaction I had from the Snow Bunting. It made its way towards me and when everyone had departed, the bird not only wasn't worried that I was nearby but actually seemed to seek me out and came to rest right next to me which was a magical thing.. Obviously this was also a brilliant opportunity and I took many, many really good close ups. Dave Cawthraw is a nice chap that I have met on many occasions and he took my photo as I photographed the bunting…..me in action so to speak and thanks Dave for sending it to me.
So there I am! At one point the bird decided to drink from a puddle which made for a good image. There will be many more photographs of this bird when I have had a look through them.
After 9 or so visits to Darts Farm this last 30 days or so, I eventually caught up with the Penduline Tits today. I have photographed this species before in Devon at Paignton in 2009 but I only achieved a dismal result then so it was brilliant to have some success today. The 3 (possible even more were reported but that has never been proven), have been regularly visiting the Darts Farm wetland hide area. It has been frustrating though because it hasn't been a daily affair and somedays they have been absent altogether. I missed them again yesterday, this time by just a minute or two, (yet again) so when I went again this morning I had optimism but not a lot of confidence. Eventually after an hour or so, the call went up that they were here….. at last!
I was told by the other birders and photographers that they had shown better, and stayed for longer than they had ever done before so in the end, I was lucky and felt very privileged. I have got a bit of a thing about how we don't appreciate the common attractive birds and how rarity somehow makes a bird more attractive, that's nonsense of course but in this case, not having seen the species very well before, they seemed very appealing and interesting. I have been looking on a very interesting Spanish website to try and age and sex these 3 birds and it would appear that they are all female's of varying ages. Have a look at the link here Sexing and ageing Penduline Tits.
Whether these three birds constitute a small family group is uncertain but you can decide for yourself. What was interesting was their feeding behaviour.
They would fly down from an adjacent tree to the Reed Mace…..(AKA Bullrush) and literally tear at the head of the mace. You would suspect that they were feeding on the seed contained within but in fact that isn't the case. They are in fact, searching for larvae hidden in the seed head and on several occasions I was lucky enough to see them with small moth larvae (see below). The first few photos show the more well marked bird. An adult female jusging by other photos I have seen?
The next few photos seem to show another female, this one with markings that are not as well defined, but then, lighting can have such a large effect on photographs.
The next pictures show the less well marked of the three birds….is this a first winter female?
The next photograph is bird number 2
Penduline Tits are a rare winter migrant in the UK with just a few sightings every winter. They don't breed here which is a mystery and one of those interesting facts that can't be explained. They are common in other parts of Europe, both north and south so climate can't be a factor. The last Penduline Tit seen in Devon was in 2009 and when I looked at photographs of the bird it seemed to confirm that the three here at the moment are females.
Photographers talk about the `'golden hour", this is when the sun is low in the sky and a lovely glow is cast on your subject, there are less unhelpful shadows and detail is picked out and displayed more effectively as well. Late this afternoon I went to some nearby pools where I had photographed Water Rail before Christmas ( see the Blog post below). I thought I would have a good chance of a photograph this afternoon. The light was absolutely beautiful with amazing reflections on the water. I was quite disappointed though when just the opportunity I had hoped for presented itself. One of the resident Rails swam across from one nearby island to the one in front of me but I didn't see it until the last second and it disappeared out of view before I could get a shot! Then suddenly a Stonechat flew in and perched on the reed mace opposite and it was as though a golden floodlight was shining on it.
The weather was dreary today, another example of our less than wonderful met office getting the forecast wrong, how many times have you heard me say that. Sunny spells were forecast and instead, we had very low cloud and at times, fine rain. Why is it so hard for them to predict the weather I wonder? So, it was a case of going out and making the best of it or sitting indoors all day long and in the evening too. I went out to look for the Great Grey Shrike that has been on Aylesbeare Common for the last few weeks. It had been seen up there today so there was a good chance that I might see it. When I got there it was even more damp and dank so I didn't linger for too long after a cursory look had drawn a blank. On my way back home I popped in to Darts Farm just to see if there was any sign of the Penduline Tits that I have yet to photograph but I think it will be just a matter of time if I visit often enough. I stood chatting to an interesting young man, just killing time really and as the afternoon turned in to an early January dusk, the resident Water Rail popped out and put on quite a show, eventually jumping up to perch on the fence. It stayed there for a good 2 minutes before hopping down again in to the open in the field. By now, even with my camera set at really extreme levels, (1/100s f/6.3 at 500.0mm iso3200), only one of the dozens of photos was just about OK and worth posting.