I was joined here in Sri Lanka by my wife Jenny and son Tom on Thursday, late afternoon. As a promise to Jenny I haven’t been using my camera much since, in fact not at all but I have still been enjoying the birds and wildlife. The weather continues to be hot and humid with some rain here and there and today, Sunday its been very hot and then suddenly we were hit by a heavy storm with thunder and lightening flashing all around us. It is Jenny’s birthday and I had planned to take her for late afternoon tea at the Ranwelli Hotel but the rain spoilt the treat somewhat. This morning we started the day with traditional dancers and firecrackers to celebrate the big birthday for Jenny. We enjoyed a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast treat with milk rice cakes and honey as well as other delicacies. The dancers were agile and acrobatic with traditional drums beating wildly. If you are reading this and know of the Royal Marine’s band then you will think the same as I did, it was very much like a Sri Lankan Corp of Drums!
Jenny and her dancers.
Anyway, it was a lovely birthday treat for Jenny even with possibly the strangest rendition of happy Birthday that I have ever heard. All of us were singing in different languages and keys with the sun beating down to tip the thermometer to around 28 degrees at 9 o’clock.
Yesterday I took Jenny and Tom to Negombo and inevitably to the fish market where the sights, sounds and smells are simply over - powering and this, coupled with the heat can be almost too much to bear. Tom immediately gagged and was almost sick. On the beach though, the workers were processing the whitebait as always, egrets were numerous and the terns were diving for fish close in to shore, just as I remembered it. We returned to the Railway Station ready for the journey back on the rickety train but decided to take a Tuk tuk instead which was like an Alton Towers ride, no crash this time but all the time knowing that there was a reasonable possibility! The highlight of this journey was the avoidance of cow and calf crossing the main road as busses, lorries and of course us and the many other tuk-tuks did the same. Miracles do happen…….. every second of the day here on the roads of Sri Lanka, accidents do not happen constantly which you would imagine they should. But who knows why not.
The first thing I did today was try to get shots of the Bee-eathers in flight. The sun was shining at first and it was an ideal chance to achieve the fast shutter speed needed. I had stunning success and the picture above is my favourite amongst some really nice images. I dodged the showers and at one point got absolutely soaked through to my skin, the great thing though is that you don't get cold in the least as the temperature remains in the high 20's. I watched the Bee-eaters having some relatively easy pickings and at least twice I saw a bird just grab a bee out of the air without even having to leave the perch. I think this family of birds has evolved to be very successful. They are constantly alert and hunting and follow potential prey visually before launching themselves at the prey which they seem to capture very easily before gliding back to the perch, usually the one from which they left.
It seems obvious in this photo just how they got their name. With it's eyes fixed firmly on the small bee it launches itself in pursuit.
Then with the bee firmly in the beak it lands back on a perch. This species of Bee-eater is at it's most attractive when the underside of the wing is exposed.
The Blue - tailed Bee - rather is very well named.
So after a good morning and a period of rest to get over the "one drink too many"th evening before, I took one of Ravi's motor scooters north to Madame and the rice paddies that I know well and always enjoy. I think being at the rice paddies there is about the most remote and "wild" that I have ever felt. It's relatively safe and quite easy to access so ideal although I did feel just a little bit threatened from time to time due to its isolation. There was many many birds there but nothing I haven't seen before but, apart from being very hot and humid it was one of those days of a lifetime that will always be remembered. The drive too and fro was really extreme. I have said it before on numerous occasions that I can't understand how accidents don't happen constantly. There is an unwritten rule that i haven't quite understood yet but involves just trying too keep out of the way of the oncoming, very quick and aggressive drivers. The busses are particularly frightening and they just drive as fast as they can and everyone else on the road including dogs, old ladies crossing and of course, all other vehicles getting clear.
Purple Swamp Hen
White rumped Munia.
Lesser Whistling Duck
Cinnamon Bittern (yet to confirm ID.)
Today turned out to be absolutely fabulous with success at every turn. I started when I was drinking coffee just minutes after I got up. Ravi, the house owner noticed that there were 2 or more Brown headed Barbets around the garden so we quickly put out a piece of papaya to see if that's what they had come for.....and it was because, quick as a flash and as soon as it was safe one came down to the fruit. At least 3 others waited their turn and it was a real spectacle to get so close to this stunning species.
I am just so taken with the beautiful exotic look of this species which is a little larger than a European Starling but very much bulkier and as you can see with a huge beak which it uses for breaking in to fruit like mango or papaya. I am told that they are particularly fond of papaya. Then after that excitement I went to the beach, the sun was now shining bright and surely the bee-eaters would be using the perches that I had set out - and they were.
I set my self up next to the perch were only a few minutes earlier a Blue - tailed bee -eater had been and it was just a matter of seconds before one flew in with a bee, I pressed the shutter and in the bright sunlight, I captured the lovely bird in flight with wings stretched.
Then later on in the afternoon I went back to the are where I had seen Lotens Sunbird yesterday and at first things were a little quiet . There was a local fisherman with a throw net and he had disturbed the birds. But he soon left and then I was able to get down to some serious birding photograph and in the end managed to see all 3 of Sri Lankas sunbird species. All in all a great day.
Dinner tonight was a lovely plate of curried tiger prawns which were caught by the village fishermen from the village beach. Quite a lovely meal.
Indian Magpie Robin.
So what can you do when it is raining incessantly? Even though I made an attempt to go out first thing it was just ridiculous to try to do anything. Not too much of a hardship really because there is always the veranda of the villa where I could sit in comfort and under cover. I had the camera set up and from time to time Purple -Rumped Sunbirds came to the flowering shrub close by to drink nectar. As well as the pair, there was another young male. I have had numerous chances to take a really good shot and I found it frustrating as I have yet to take one that is fantastic. This is because the bright yellow of the belly is a stark contrast to the dark of the head. I desperately need a remote flash which I left at home unfortunately. With a flash at half power or less I would be able to pick out the detail in the dark areas of the bird.
This is a Yellow billed Babler, a strange bird with no strong recognisable markings except a slightly blue eye! They move around in small family groups and remind me of a group of unruly kids. They are noisy and seem to fly slowly in a way that is hard to describe but seems unlike any bird I have ever seen before. They then move around on the floor together picking up little bits of fruit and scraps. They seem to be omnivorous, but are probably not seed eaters, however but they love to eat coconut and papaya.
As well as the Purple rumped we also had at least one Purple Sunbird here very early but I didn't have the camera ready at the time! The resident Red vented Bulbuls are coming to eat the banana and papaya that I had put in the dry, out on the tile. They seemed to appreciate both the food and the place to keep out of the rain. I had been hoping for a new species and my luck was in when a Lotens Sunbird female came to catch insects around a pot of bouganvila. I have seen this species and photographed it before but not a female so I was pleased. Later on in the day - when it had stopped I found a place where there was a pair as well as other sunbirds, I think they were Purple rumped again. They were defending a flowering shrub in exactly the area that I saw Lotens last year so I am sure I will get some great shots of this species tomorrow or when I go there again. In the garden again I managed a photograph of a Drongo which is a weird looking bird about the size of a European starling with a mostly black shiny body and an usual forked tail which is the “trademark” of this family of birds. The Brown Headed Barbet came to the wires again but I will never be able to improve on the photo I took the other day.
When I arrived here on Tuesday I had quickly looked on the beach nearby for a territory of Blue tailed Bee-eaters and it wasn’t that hard to find where they are. They seemed to be favouring high wires to hunt from but from time to time they would come down to the sand. I thought I would place perches low down and stuck in the ground around the area. It has worked well. I went back this morning - in the rain and there on one of my perches were 2 Bee-eaters - perfect. I had to leave because the weather was so wet and the rain was driving in to my face. If I had set the camera up it would have been wet through within seconds, so there was no point. I am excited though because knowing the way that Bee-eaters feed they will use this perch regularly and on their foraging forays they will fly from there and then return in much the same was as a flycatcher. It's a good way of getting some special flight shots. Later on in the afternoon, just before dusk I returned and the bee-eaters were still using the same perches. I then walked on further down the beach and eventually arrived at a more wild area I came across several Stone Curlew, at least 10 and then 5 Nightjar of a species I couldn’t recognise, took to the air as I walked through the undergrowth. Also the sunbirds as described above and a small warbler - probably a Blyths Reed Warbler that I have seen there before. By 4.30 it had stopped raining which was good and that's the way it has remained.
Dinner was a Tuna Steak with fresh green beans and carrots and some slightly undercooked chips! I enjoyed the meal as I chatted to the family who are as lovely and engaging as ever. They are playful, a good way to describe their humour which is innocent and childish really. They love life and never seem unhappy except if they think you are. I was trying to explain about my injured knee which happened in 1969! Due to the language barrier they thought I was saying that I had just fallen over and hurt it which made them fuss over me in a very concerned way as they tried to help. Eventually I managed to get through to them that it was an ancient injury and they laughed as though I had told the worlds very funniest joke!!!!
It's still raining! Very pleasant though. I had plans today for a trip up to Madampe but I have put it on hold until the weather improves. It is muggy and mild with a light breeze and temperatures around 27 at midday. Having just arrived at the hotel to get a message to Jenny I caught sight of the news which is devastating to say the least, when will it ever end. Hatred in the name of religion yet again. I know Sri Lanka has had its problems with separatists but in the main, they seem to be able to coexist here together in a melting pot of religions, a lesson to the rest of the world perhaps?
Seems trivial to talk about mundane things now after such an awful thing but life goes on for the rest of us I suppose.
As you may have noticed I had some good success with Purple pumped Sunbirds yesterday and today as I had breakfast I tried for more and did a little better. This is a male with the iridescent head.
The little purple patch on the rump and flanks can't be seen in this picture but on the next image you can see it clearly.
The beach 100 yards from Ravi's house, looking towards the Dolphin Hotel.
I had plans for today but that all went out of the window when the rain that had been falling all night long was still bucketing down when I climbed out of my pit at the rather late time of 8.35. I sat on the balcony of the dream house a short while later, at first with coffee and then with breakfast and at 14.08, as I started to write this I had been there for more than 5 hours and had enjoyed one of the best days bird photography that I can remember. The birds have just kept coming. The star attraction has been a pair, or possibly 3 Purple rumped sunbirds that I hadn’t realised until now, are constant visitors to a yellow flowering shrub which is just feet from the veranda where I am sat. They are feeding by piercing the blossom low down near the stalk to obtain the nectar which they extract with a long and I presume, sticky tongue. There is a name for this feeding behaviour, it does not benefit the plant in any way.
A male Purple pumped Sunbird feeding in the rain this morning.
As I sit here sorting through pictures taken this session, I am distracted to take more and more which I then immediately transfer to the computer to have a look at. Perfect really. The temperature, because of the rain is now at least 8 degrees cooler than yesterday and very, very pleasant. No strong sun, lots of rain of course and a light breeze here and there. Then every 10 minutes or so the sunbirds fly in to feed, I look at the pictures and then when I realise where I have gone wrong, I adjust accordingly for the next attempt when they fly in again and a visit seems to take place every 15 minutes or so.
A female Purple pumped Sunbird.
I said the star turns were the sunbirds but a real celebrity flew in, in the form of a Brown headed Barbet, a phenomenal bird. I had only been thinking before I left home that I hoped I would get the chance to improve my pictures of this species and today I took some photographs that I will never ever be able to beat. We have put a stick in the lawn and loaded it with fruit, at first banana and then papaya and the local pair of Red vented Bulbuls are obsessed with the freebies, thats if they can fight off the Myna birds. I thought that the Barbet had come down for the papaya but I was wrong because it had come to feed on the fruit of a plant called …… Ravi has already told me that this plant is a medicinal fruit, a herbal remedy helpful for sufferers of diabetes apparently? That may or not be true but the barbet certainly thought that it was worth taking a risk to get at it. Barbets are the most parrot like birds that you can imagine, but not in the least bit related and with a totally different bill shape. They feed on soft fruit and insects and don’t normally leave the higher branches of trees. They have a very evocative call.
A Brown headed Barbet comes to inspect a fruiting shrub in the garden this morning.
Let me list the birds that I have had here today from the comfort of the veranda. Just amazing really.
Purple pumped Sunbird
Common Taylor Bird
Brown headed Barbet
Ring necked Parakeet
Red vented Bulbul
Yellow Billed Babler
and a lovely little Ground Squirrel.
A Red Vented Bulbul comes to feed on papaya.
Later on the weather was still wet, the birds keep coming and even an obsessive like me was thinking that enough is enough and I should go for a walk to see what else I can see. I would get wet of course but getting wet in the tropics is a pleasant enough thing, you should try it!
Just a little bit about dinner last night. Ravi described it as Curry and Rice. In fact it was steamed rice with curried Tiger Prawns on the side, a dish of potato curry and symbal, a Sri Lankan speciality which seems to have dried prawns amongst other things, a heavily salted and delicate flavour. It was all suburb and very enjoyable, made all the more pleasant by flavours which I was experiencing for the first time.
This has been one of the most pleasant days that I can remember and like I have said, all within feet of the bed that I climbed out of, bird photography at its very best in a real lazy way.
The first thing to say is that today is almost unbearably hot, so hot that 10 minutes outside turns you in to a bundle of wet clothes and damp skin. My thermometer tells me its 37 in the shade but I am not sure of its accuracy. I put a towel in the freeze box of the fridge earlier and the result was like heaven! Now I know why tennis players sit like that between ends. But back to the real stuff. Dinner last night was absolutely excellent, Ravi's Restaurant has meant that standards have been upped even more. I had a gorgeous grilled Tuna....not tooner as Ravis spells it.... steak with chips and ladies fingers which I believe is also known as okra? It was superb anyway.
I had a most incredibly fruitful couple of hours with a White throated Kingfisher yesterday afternoon and have taken photographs that have way exceeded any taken of this species by me before. This is a woodland Kingfisher, by that I mean it hunts over land rather than in water. This one was perched very accommodatingly above a bed of convolvulus which spread out on the edge of the beach for an area the size of a football pitch. From time to time it would dive down to grab something in the dense growth, probably small land crabs because I have seen them eat crabs on a previous trip. As the sun started to set it's behaviour became more and more intense and I did my utmost not to disturb it. I have to say that I am thrilled to have had such good success already.
Bee-eaters were also "working" the same little patch but they were feeding as you would expect, on flying insects and having fantastic success. I photographed them with various insects including one with a large moth and another with a bee that I wouldn't have liked to have encountered if it was in a bad mood!
Then, this morning I went back and carried on to try for "that" shot and managed to photograph the food flip which is when they throw the pray in to the air before swallowing.
A late extra to this post.
I put some banana in the garden which I know the Red vented Bulbuls really like, It worked a treat and it was just minutes before a pair came down to take it. A great opportunity for a flight shot.
Who's this coming up the road? None other than Charlie on tour, back in Sri Lanka yet again for the....is it the 5th time now.? I am staying at Ravi's house again, its just great and I have spoken about it so often.
It was lovely feeling to see all my friends again yesterday and I received the usually very warm welcome from everyone including "dog" who unbelievably remembered me as well. Thats him in the top picture. Last night I wandered up the Dolphin Hotel for a beer and to re-meet my old friends from behind the bar, that was lovely too....when I got back in to the road who was there waiting for me but "dog" and he wagged his tail and accompanied me down the road to keep me safe!
Cattle Egrets are one of the more more common and easy to see birds here, this one is searching for ghost crabs. and he gets successful.
I was up at dawn after a fractured, jet lagged night of sleep when you keep waking at all hours and not knowing what the time is, so at 6 I felt just as awful as I had at 3! Never the less I climbed out of the air con into a reasonably nice morning and stumbled over to the restaurant....Ravi's new venture....and downed my coffee. My morning's exploration saw me revisiting the old haunts and I saw the usual favourites. Blue tailed Bee-eater, Cattle Egret and Common Sandpiper. I caught sight of a spectacular Sea Eagle, the first one I have seen here in Sri Lanka so it was good start although it was a disappointment that the Sea eagle didn't return after disappearing out of sight over the village next to the Oya...... that's river by the way.
I have seen Common Sandpiper on this old boat on every trip here, can't be a coincidence.
Whiskered Tern were fishing over the lagoon and there were fly-overs from Parakeet, Red-vented Bulbul and Bablers . All in all, a promising start to the trip. It's going to be even more special this time because my wife Jenny and son Tommy are flying out to spend the last 10 days with me next week.
This is a Red Vented Bulbul with a mouth full of berries.
We put out lots of free offerings for the birds this morning, banana and pineapple. I had a nap mid-morning to shake off of my jet lag and when I went out in to the garden later everything had been eaten. There is a Myna Bird nest in the eaves of the Dream house and the parents are coming constantly to feed their young. It's going to be a good trip!
Today's forecast talked about sunlight and I knew that would give me another good opportunity to try to photograph Nuthatches in flight. My results are getting better and better and I now know what I need to do to achieve success. Bright light is an absolute necessity but positioning of the camera in relation to the birds flight path is quite relevant as well. It is very important to try and predict the trajectory which a bird is going to take when it flies down to feed. If you do that then you have a better chance of the bird passing through the point of focus. Next time we have a bright day I will have another chance to practice. I have a plan to use para-cord attached to a tree and down to the feeding stump, This will give me an exact line that a bird will fly on.. It will be just a case of focusing on the cord which will be the flight path of the bird. Then I will set the focus anywhere along the cord. Then with the cord removed I will know where the bird is predicted to be along the flight path. I think this will work but only time will tell. Whether all of this is a bit of overkill, I will only know once I have tried it out but it certainly won't do any harm. But what is certain is that little woodland birds fly at really fast speeds and I am going to do some experiments to see exactly how fast that is. With a stop watch I will record the time it takes to fly a set distance and then just do a basic time, distance and speed calculation. At the moment it's just Nuthatches and Coal Tits that are using the feeder regularly. Oddly, Siskins as yet haven't visited the feeder while I have been there which is odd because I have heard and seen them in the trees all around and over at the feeders by the HQ siskin are pretty much constant visitors and that is only just 300 yards away.
I have had my best ever encounters and sightings of Crossbills this last two weeks thanks to Dave Stone - see link to the left - one of Devon's best birders who recently has become more and more interested in photography. That doesn't make him any less worthy by the way! He has a wealth of knowledge which never fails to impress me.
But back to Crossbills. It was 10 days between my first decent photos of them when I snapped them on a particular birch tree before fluttering down to drink from a black, peat stained pool just beneath the tree. As I sat photographing Nuthatches in flight I heard the excited ad unmistakeable chatter, songs and calls of a small flock as they flew in to the trees where I had photographed them 10 days previously. I knew they had come to drink again so I quickly made my way quietly to a spot hidden behind a tree with a clear view of the birch tree. Crossbills were dropping to the pool to drink from the high conifers above but once down on the ground I couldn't see them because of dense undergrowth. Then suddenly a female was on exactly the same branch that I had photographed them before and it was only seconds before it was joined by a female. Then another male came down as the first went to drink. It was interesting to see how the males vary in hues of red. How amazing to see them drinking like this. In all, there were a dozen or so all taking their turn to drop down.
As I made my way up to the feeding station yesterday morning that I have set up on Haldon recently it was obvious that I would have to change my tack if I was not going to have a wasted day. It was really dull and the kind of day when you would only be able to take portraits and any thoughts of continuing with my experiments with inflight photography would have to be put on hold. This was fine because I really wanted to get some nice photos of the Great spotted Woodpeckers there. I pulled some scrub together around the stump of a felled tree and then slung some camo netting over the front to wait out the arrival of a woodpecker. It was a bit cramped but almost immediately the Coal Tits and then Nuthatches started to come to the peanuts which I had put at the base of a weathered old branch. I took lovely photos of Nuthatches which are in my opinion a great little bird. They are feisty and dominant over the small tits and from time to time one would come down that was obviously a male with much darker terracotta red feathers on the flanks and a proud bossy demeanour.
I have taken hundreds of Nuthatch pictures in the past but with photography every day is different, new light and a new location as well as different behaviour and a different bird but what is constant is the characteristic pose of a Nuthatch. As I sat there quietly and concealed, suddenly there was a woodpecker. This time it was a female, if you look at the nape of a Great spotted Woodpecker there is a red patch but on the female this red is absent. You can see this in the picture below. This means that there are at least 3 different individuals coming to the feed here, I have had two males together and now of course, the female. Thats not to say that when I have had individual males it has always been the same one. and you will never know? What I find fascinating is that newly fledged birds have a red forehead which is absent in both adults, in short, baby woodpeckers are more colourful than their parents.
Here in the West of England at least, the Coal Tit seem to be the common small tit species now and on the increase here whereas the once much more common species, the Blue Tit appears to be the less common of the two now, a total reversal over the last decade. I can't remember when I first started to see Coal Tits commonly but I know that ten years ago this wouldn't have been the case. At the feeding station that I set up recently, Coal Tits never seem to stop flying in to collect peanuts and this is because they stack their food unlike the other tit species that occur there. It also appears that Nuthatches are also known to stash food which probably explains why they come to peanuts so regularly.
At last I had some success photographing Nuthatches in flight yesterday. I now know that the best way to get some good results is to cover all the bases so to speak. I've said before that you need a very fast shutter speed and it seemed yesterday that only 1/4000 was fast enough, anything slower and you run the risk of some blurring. As well as that you require a reasonable depth of field, by that I mean extend the focal point rather than an exact spot because you do not know exactly where the flying bird is going to be. Any deviation from the focal point by even a fraction of an inch will mean that the image is not in focus but choose a large numbered f-stop and this can be eradicated because the camera will be sharp for a less precise spot if this makes sense. To get both of these critically important settings you need really good light and as well, choose an ISO setting which is higher than you would normally. One other factor that is important is to under-stop your exposure because with the bright sunny conditions that are required, any white areas of a bird will be burnt out This is because white areas will reflect the light rather than dark areas. However if you under-stop too much then the entire image will be too dark. As you can see it is quite a hard task to get all of this correct. So the first thing you need is a good sunny day and the sun coming from the correct direction, that is with the sun over your shoulder and flooding on to the subject. Oh, and did I mention the other thing? A bird to photograph and hopefully coming to your feed regularly. One of the big down sides to all of this is the ISO, this is the sensitivity of your camera to light. If you choose a high ISO you will not need so much light to achieve the high shutter speed and f-stop required. Job done you would think but you would wrong because images taken with high ISO numbers are very grainy which detracts from the detail of the subject as well as creating small dots - called noise - all over the image. You want to avoid this as much as possible and there are a few ways that can help. Adjust the contrast on your camera settings so that the speckles are not so contrasted, make sure that your image is not too dark, the dots don't show so much with correctly exposed photos and in addition if you shoot your photos with a small file, say only 6 or 10 mega-pixels then there are less pixels and hence, less speckles and dots. So having given all of this loads of thought I had all my bases covered, the day was sunny and I had Nuthatches coming constantly to the peanuts. It wasn't a case of just turning up with a few peanuts and hoping for it to work. I had prepared and set the feeding station up a few days previous and the birds were waiting for me to re-stock. I took hundreds and hundreds of pictures, 98% of them were discarded and amongst them were a few that were really good.
So there were have it, 7 good images that I am pleased with. I am sat here this morning writing this because the weather is dull today, definitely a day when I can achieve all the factors I spoke about above.
It was odd today because Nuthatches didn't come in to the feeder for the hour or so that the sun was shining and the light was good, then as soon as I decided to call it a day because the sun went behind cloud and as soon I walked away, there was a Nuthatch! However the Woodpecker situation got very interesting. At first I was wondering if one would arrive but I soon got the answer when one flew in to investigate the dead trunk where I had buried the peanuts. Then, with one male Great spotted Woodpecker on the trunk, in flew another. There was a bit of a spat between the two and the new arriver left as quick as he had arrived. But I am sure this is going to give some good photo opportunities if this happens again.
My efforts to photograph the Nuthatches, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Coal Tits in flight hasn't been 100% successful yet but I am getting there. I have had some amazing close up views of the woodpecker though and when I return to the spot this afternoon i know that I will have further opportunities. I need to set things up for a good shot. It is just amazing to see how different pictures look depending on the direction of the light and these tow shots below illustrate this really well.
I have said numerous times on the blog over the last 6 years that it's very satisfying to plan something and get a result when the plan works. As you may have read in my previous posts in the last few days, I have set up a feeding station near to my home. I am trying to get woodpeckers and siskins to come to a feeder placed out in the open. This will then give me the chance to try to photograph them in flight which I find, not only a big challenge but very revealing when it comes together. I pushed peanuts in to holes in a dead tree stump and hoped that eventually Great spotted Woodpeckers would fly in to feed on them. Of course, woodpeckers will come down to a peanut feeder without too much persuasion but it doesn't make for a very photogenic image but when birds are feeding or perched on a tree trunk, it's so much more appealing and natural and makes for a much better photograph. I popped up there for a short while this afternoon and was chuffed to see not only Nuthatches coming to the old stump but also a male Great spotted Woodpecker, just as I hoped one would. I am sure that as soon as we have bright light I am going to have some real success with woodpeckers in flight. So here's one of the shots that I took today. The light was poor and I didn't have a tripod or large 500 lens with me but the result shows what promise there is to come.
About my Blog: The Blog may be going private very soon, I am yet to make the final decision. I have been upset by negative comments recently and not for the first time either. I started the blog in the first instance to just keep a record of what I saw and photographed and I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't share this with others but it seems that I was wrong and there really are some pretty awful people out there. Recently it was tweeted that I only took and posted photos because of my ego, what a crass comment that is and totally unnecessary. If it does go private and you want to continue reading my blog just let me know and I will send you the password once I know who you are.
I went up to Haldon to check the feeders this afternoon and I was very pleased to see that Coal Tits are using them constantly. This is good and just as I hoped and expected. As soon as other birds, Siskins, Nuthatches and Woodpeckers discover the feeding station then I am sure they will come in to feed regularly very soon after all it's only 48 hours ago that I set it up. In a few minutes I counted 30 visits of coal tits and at one time there was 3 on the feeder at once, so there are at least 3 that have found the feeders. I started to prepare a hollow which is where I will build a drinking pool using some heavy duty black plastic. I will decorate it and make it look as natural and photogenic as possible. Hopefully Crossbills will come to drink from this pool which will be wonderful if that happens. My plan is to form a waterproof depression which will fill up with rainwater when we next have a shower. This is all very interesting.
I have been taking a lot of interest in the Siskins that are using the feeders near to the visitors centre at Haldon Forest at the moment. This is quite close to my house here in Alphington and I can drive there in about 7 minutes, very convenient. Siskin do breed in Devon but they are far from numerous, however they on the increase I understand. In the past I have even had them on my garden feeders which was a thrill to say the least. There is some real potential to take some great flight shots and then record the lovely wing bars, a very attractive feature of the species. The only problem at the moment is that the feeders are in a dull area which is shaded by trees all around. If these feeders were in an open area then I could adjust the camera to give me some real chance of a great photo or two. As the title of this post says, this is my best effort so far but I am sure I can do so much better. To that end I have set up a feeder in another part of the wood which is surrounded by tall conifers but in the open and if I can get the birds to come down to this feeding station which will be very rewarding. What's more, it is isolated so I will be on my own which is just what I enjoy. As well as Siskins there are many Jays and Woodpeckers up there and if I hide myself carefully I would imagine that these two photogenic species will also come down to pick up peanuts. What's more, I have drilled a dozen or so peanut sized holes in to the remains of a dead conifer, each hole now contains 2 or 3 peanuts and I am very, very confident that Great - Spotted Woodpecker will come t take these as soon s they are discovered. A little bit to look forward to I think.
I went back to look for Crossbills yesterday but just as I suspected, it would be hard to get close to them now that the weather has given us a bit of rain, there is lots of standing water and consequently the odds of the Crossbills choosing the attractive pool is now low. However there was still lots of Goldcrests and other small birds around and the Crossbills could be heard flying overhead regularly.
I had some fun photographing the Goldcrests and also had a fleeting glimpse of a Firecrest again but I didn't manage to photograph it because just as it made an appearance, a stoat showed itself, I was very excited hoping that it would give me clear shot and then out of the corner of my eye, there was the Firecrest. The outcome was that I didn't photograph either. It was brilliant to see the stoat though as I haven't seen one for quite a while and they are such brilliant animals to see. After that I decided go and see if I could photograph the Siskins around the feeders and I have to say that they were very impressive with dozens of them coming and going.
As well as Siskins, a Jay was furtively flying in to eat acorns from the tree above me. It did impress me to see how clever they were, because I think there was more than one. When it was quiet and no people were present, one would fly quietly in to the tree and grab a few acorns before disappearing again just as secretively. All in all an impressive and nice session. At this spot in the last few days I have photographed, and really nicely, Crossbill, Goldcrest and Siskin. As well as these impressive beauties I have also photographed Wren, Treecreeper and Nuthatch.
I had a fantastic morning's birding this morning which was unexpected to be honest. I went back to look for Crossbills and Siskins and at first there wasn't a lot going on but this was probably due to the noise and activity in the area. Once it had quietened down things really started to hot up. Firstly Coal Tits came to drink and there were several in the conifers around. I heard several high pitched calls and songs from Goldcrests and it wasn't long before I started to see them in the conifers. It was difficult to estimate how many but definitely at least 6. Then suddenly as I put my lens on to a a bird and I could see immediately that it was a Firecrest. This is the first Firecrest that I have found for my self. I took some ridiculously bad photos which were good enough for me to just to check the colouring and to confirm that I wasn't imagining it. Then the Goldcrests really started to show themselves and as I watched and photographed them, a small group of Crossbills arrived and landed in the tree that I was leaning up against and half hiding behind. The noise fro the Crossbills began to build and then suddenly one flew down to the hidden puddle to drink and this was quickly followed by another. Then a male Crossbill - the one above - flew on to that perch and was quickly joined by two females, one right next to it and the other just above. It really was a special few minutes and very enjoyable.
I had a phone call from one of my "Dave" mates yesterday telling me to have a look at the Crosbill photographs on his blog that he had taken recently. He had stumbled upon a a small flock coming down to drink from a puddle deep in the woods at Haldon. I asked him if he would show me where and as we haven't had any real rain for several weeks it seemed pretty reasonable to assume that they would be coming and going to this little water source regularly. I was right and I really have to thank Dave Stone for taking me this morning. All in all I spent around 6 hours - with a break for lunch - trying to get a good photo as they came down from the high trees to first perch in a birch tree before flying down to the puddle which was hidden, unfortunately and surrounded by really high grasses. The light was extremely difficult to deal with and it took as much patience as I have, always trying to make sure that the light, if possible, was coming from over my shoulder and on to the tree. Suddenly, I was in the right spot, the light was right and all I needed now was a bird, then right on cue, there was a female followed quite quickly by a male. I was covered with cam netting and the birds were acting naturally and unaware of my presence. Crossbills are not that easy to find nor see let alone photograph so it was a red letter day really. Again thanks to Dave for his help.
I had a nasty shock this morning, my garage was broken in to overnight and some quite valuable recording equipment that I had stored in there was stolen. As well as that, the "low - lifes" went in to my polytunnel and stole small water pumps, tools and a few other things, what a massive intrusion to my life and my property. After a bit of investigation I realised that the thief or thieves had got in to my garden over a back wall and some garages that adjoin that part of my garden. I decided on a walk around that area to see if I could see any sign of dropped stuff or whatever. I could not believe my eyes as I walked down the small ally at the end of my street that leads to a lawned area, there on the grass was a Green Woodpecker.
This was just feet from my house and garden. I live in an extremely built up area and this is the first time that I have seen this species here. I watched it for a minute or two as it feed and then decided to rush back home to get my camera. I didn't really expect it to still be there when I got back but I was wrong, it was, still feeding on the lawn. It hopped around as it looked for ants which is the main diet of Green Woodpeckers. I caught sight of it's massively long tongue but didn't manage to capture a photograph of that. I quite quickly ascertained that it was a juvenile bird just moulting out in to adult plumage with some pin feathers showing through and it still had a few spots on the breast as you can see in the photo above. You can also see the solid black moustache - called a malar stripe indicating a female. If it was a male then the malar stripe would be edged with red. After a while I decided to get down on the ground to see if I could get a better angle for a photo. This was just too much for the bird and it flew to an apple tree in a garden adjoining the green. It is possible that the bird may return because I have read that once there is a known good food source this is quite likely.
Dave Stone is a dedicated and committed birder who is constantly out and about looking for "that rarity", see his blog by clicking on the link above left. Yesterday he called me to let me know of a Grey Phalarope that he had discovered on Exminster Marsh yesterday morning. Thanks Dave. By the time I got there all the usual protagonists had also arrived and it was very pleasant to get such a nice friendly welcome from the Daves, (Stone,Land, Boult and Hopkins). I quickly located the rarity in the small pool by the lane and enjoyed seeing it, a bird that I have seen a few times but they always cause a stir when they arrive here . It was hard to get a shot because of the tall grasses between the enthusiastic bird watchers and the bird. An attempt was made by some to "trim" the grasses back which caused a large amount of nastiness from one or two others, oh the joys of twitching. I hate it really but you just have to go when there is a rare bird around or you would never see anything. It really gets my goat to see how a small minority of the public with an interest in birds like the rest of us seem to put themselves in a position of authority over the majority. I don't know how they are allowed to get away with it. They have a pseudo superior opinion of themselves, they look down their noses at photographers and just about everybody else who isn't in their odd little clique so it makes for an unpleasant atmosphere which frankly is best avoided which is why I keep myself to myself and get most of my bird watching pleasure away from the "madding crowd" as Thomas Hardy said. I came away because of them without getting a photo. So then again this morning, another Dave (Land) rang me to say it was still there. I gathered up my gear and off I went for another try. I had to laugh when I arrived because now someone had chopped down the reeds and grasses giving a clear view. the bird was there in full view proving that taking 12 inches of reed in a gap 3 feet wide had caused no disturbance whatsoever, its on a public road anyway so? Whoever chopped the reeds back was long gone but it did mean that I got a decent photo or two. It is an interesting bird, described by someone as a juvenile but I don't think so. Can you see the reddish tinge on the upper breast and the remains of adult plumage on the back, surely an adult but I would be pleased to hear from anyone with an opinion about that.
I wasn't feeling all that chipper yesterday morning after a really bad nights sleep and then once up and about the weather was depressing and gloomy. However, by the end of the day, as I drove home back to Exeter, Jenny and I reflected on what a great day it had turned out. The weather had brightened up, I had seen and photographed Volucella zonaria earlier in the day and then I had gone over to Seaton Marsh because I thought I might get some better photographs of Wood Sandpiper which is a bird that I photographed in 2008 but it was a poor image. While I had been away in Minorca a group of 30 Wood Sandpiper had suddenly turned up at Seaton and I hoped that one or two may still be there. I even managed to persuade my wife to come with me which she has only done once or twice in the last 5 years! She hates birding with me because of a total lack of interest in wildlife and finds sitting in bird hides pretty tedious at best and downright boring in the main. She confessed to me that she was amazed to see how many seemingly ordinary people are so interested in birds! Once we got there it was like being in some kind of wonderful aviary, interesting birds were everywhere. I hadn't heard the news before I left home but a Spotted Crake had been seen earlier in the day so when other birders in the hide were ignoring the beautiful Wood Sandpipers and mentioning the Crake I didn't know what to focus the camera on. The Crake won of course and I managed to see it momentarily and then with a bit of patience it showed long enough for me to get a shot or two even though it was a distant shot - another species for my Devon gallery - 216 Devon species now.
This is possibly one of my worst ever photographs but it's a pretty good bird for Devon so I am glad of it but, back to the Wood Sandpipers. One of the Tringa sandpipers it's related to the Redshank, Greenshank and Lesser Yellow legs amongst others which to my eyes it resembled quite considerably. Whilst we were there the light got better and better and when one of the two still present moved close to the hide I took a series of very nice images.
Amongst all the goodies was a nice little group of Ruff which I have photographed here at Seaton before but I managed to improve on my photographs of this species as well.
I had almost forgotten that early September is such a good month for wading birds and at this time of the year there is always some nice birds to choose from, here's two more species, the first is a juvenile Ringed Plover and then a Common Sandpiper.
So all in all it was a great session. I plan to return to get some shots of the Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint that I just didn't manage.
Volucella zonaria is an amazing insect and the reason that I started this blog way back in 2007 when I had one in my garden then and was just in awe then. Yesterday I was attending my vegetable garden when I suddenly caught sight of one nectaring on the flowering garden mint. This is a massive hoverfly, a hornet mimic and is a large, impressive brightly coloured and striped insect, more than twice the size of a common wasp. Of course it is a completely harmless insect but you can imagine that anyone who didn't know better could be quite scared to see it, imagining that it may have a nasty painful sting. I quickly got my camera and took lots of photos and one or two show what a stunning creature this hoverfly species is.
After a week away in the Balearic Islands I returned to Devon just in time to join the weekly boat trip in to Lyme Bay out of Brixham, coincidentally to photograph Balearic Shearwater. This species is critically endangered due to a large decline in population. It is hard to assess the numbers but it is thought that if the decline continues at the rate it is, they will become extinct. within 20 years or so. The weather was much rougher than it had been on previous trips and at first it looked as though we were just going to enjoy the bumpy trip with only a few sightings of Shearwaters, mostly Manx and they were quite distant. Other passengers saw and even managed a photo of a Sooty Shearwater and then later on in the trip fortunately so did I but it was a distant shot that just conformed the sighting, my first for Devon. The boat was heaving about and there was also a heavy spray, it wasn't looking too good to be honest but there is always anticipation. Conditions did ease though and by the end it was much calmer. Nigel Smallbones who is the organiser - and hats off to him by the way - started to throw the contents of a large bucket overboard. This smelly concoction included fish heads, innards and the remains of a good days fishing. A few gulls had the freebies to themselves at first but then others joined us, and the two were suddenly 30ish as well as a few Gannets a Fulmar and immature and adult Kittiwake.
Kittiwake, surely the UK's prettiest gull.
Quite suddenly a Balearic Shearwater flew in from a distance following the chum line it was flying swiftly and low over the water and approached our stern in a really spectacular way. I was thrilled to watch it approach and called out to everyone else that it was on the way. There was much excitement from everybody. When this had happened on a previous trip I hadn't been too pleased with my pictures so I was determined to get it right this time. It came in, grabbed some food and we left it behind but three times it came back in to us. I have to confess that I really enjoyed the experience of being so close to such a rare and unusual bird.
A Balearic Shearwater flies in to the stern of the boat.
In the sea grabbing bits of fish.
The swell at times almost swamped the bird. Here below, it paddles on the surface.
... and then grabs prey under the water.
I've been in Minorca, one of the Balearics - for the last week, a very popular holiday destination with Northern Europeans keen to get some guaranteed sunshine. With cloudless blue skies pretty much a cert and the UK £ strong against the struggling Euro, it's a very popular destination. I always find it a little bit boring though, sitting in the sun sweating and panting in the heat is not my favourite pastime, but it's a massive pleasure to see my beautiful granddaughter enjoying life so much. You would imagine that there would be obvious and regular wildlife sightings to see and record but it's not really like that. I think, because of the heat. Most birds for example are skulking away in the thick scrubby undergrowth but the common birds that you catch a glimpse of are good ones. For example, the 2 common gull species here are both good birds, the almost uniquely "red billed" Audouins Gull is rarely if ever seen in the UK and the Yellow-legged gull replaces the UK's ubiquitous Herring Gull. Kites, both Red and Black are common and Booted Eagle is often seen. Frustratingly, I know that Nightingales are very common but you rarely catch sight of them even though they are heard almost constantly when in the right habitat, low thick scrub which they share with two other species that are very common here, Cettis and Sardinian Warbler. Woodchat Shrike are seen on every road trip and White Stork too. On the negative side, this little island has pretty much been destroyed to make way for the tourist with bare breasts and buttocks making any fully equipped photographer feel slightly uneasy. One of the more common birds is the Spotted Flycatcher and I have seen them regularly whenever I have visited, this year was no exception. Any self respecting butterfly enthusiast would have a field day with every species seen, an unusual one.
Audouin's gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii)
From Wikipedia: The Audouin's gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii) is a large gull restricted to the Mediterranean and the western coast of Saharan Africa. It breeds on small islands colonially or alone, laying 2-3 eggs on a ground nest. As is the case with many gulls, it has traditionally been placed in the genus Larus. In the late 1960s, this was one of the World's rarest gulls, with a population of only 1,000 pairs. It has established new colonies, but remains rare with a population of about 10,000 pairs. This species, unlike many large gulls, rarely scavenges, but is a specialist fish eater, and is therefore strictly coastal and pelagic. This bird will feed at night, often well out to sea, but also slowly patrols close into beaches, occasionally dangling its legs to increase drag. The adult basically resembles a small European herring gull, the most noticeable differences being the short stubby red bill and "string of pearls" white wing primary tips, rather than the large "mirrors" of some other species. The legs are grey-green. It takes four years to reach adult plumage. This species shows little tendency to wander from its breeding areas, but there were single records in the Netherlands and England in May 2003. This bird is named after the French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin.
Spotted Flycatcher. A common bird on Minorca, this is a juvenile which was feeding on the edge of a fruit orchard.
I photographed this lovely butterfly, a tiny insect in fact. I am pretty sure that it is a Langs Short tail, Leptotes pirithous a small butterfly with a wingspan of 21–29 mm in males and 24–30 mm in females. The uppersides of the wings are purple bluish in males, bluish-brown in female. The undersides are dark beige striped with white lines. The hindwings show marginal orange and black spots and two small tails.
Friday's trip was cancelled because of the inclement weather and instead we went out on Sunday morning for three hours. We set sail at 0900 and by 0920 it was obvious that we were going to see hundreds and hundreds of Manx Shearwater with a dozen or so of the critically endangered Balearic Shearwater amongst them. The conditions were calm and most of the birds were sitting rafted up in groups of hundreds of birds, far too many to count. Whilst chumming the Balearics showed a little bit of interest but mostly stayed with the Manx who rarely if ever feed from the back of trawlers and fishing boats whereas the much rarer Balearics are known for this behaviour. We tried hard not to disturb the rafts of birds and it was, as always, very hard to get a good photograph. On the way back in, after a great morning we encountered at least three small groups of Harbour Porpoise. All in all a great way to spend an August Sunday morning.
Did I improve on my images of Manx I wonder, I hope I got close, just very occasionally the Manx "sheared" close to the boat giving those on board a wonderful spectacle. Its easy to separate the two species, the Manx having much more white on the belly and a clear distinction between light and dark on the face. One of the other passengers got very excited because she saw a Sooty Shearwater amongst large rafts but it was never actually confirmed.
In my previous post about Dolphins - see here - I mentioned the great sightings I had of both Manx and Balearic Shearwaters. The conditions were really good when we first left Brixham harbour, but later on in the trip the sun was hidden behind cloud which made photography a little more difficult. However, within a few minutes of leaving harbour we came upon a raft of Manx Shearwater, a dozen or so birds were surface diving on to small bait fish. Last week the birds had kept quite a distance from the boat but on this occasion one bird in particular was right there quite close to the boat. I took a series of shots as it glided past the boat, the white belly and throat contrasting with the dark uppers and long dark wings.
What an absolute thrill I had last night. I was on a boat trip in to Lyme Bay out from Brixham on the "Optimist" with 8 other passengers, a trip organised by Nigel Smallbones. I had been on the same trip last Friday evening and had a great time then, but last night was really, really special. We started by pushing out of the harbour at a lively pace, again like last Friday, in to a glorious calm and sunny evening. We were in to a raft of Manx Shearwater almost immediately and we had absolutely brilliant views of them. The sea was almost "millpond" calm and it was really beautiful conditions, warm and bright. I managed some great photographs as one of the Shearwaters came close to the boat and I will post those pictures in another entry. It was going really well and immensely enjoyable, we constantly came upon more and more Manx Shearwater and then amongst them there was three Balearic Shearwater which is a great bird to see in Devon waters. We pushed further out in to Lyme Bay and we were around 6 miles off Brixham now. Chum was being thrown out to attract the gulls, gannets and suddenly two Balearic Shearwater came in to the offerings and were only feet from us. This was quite a spectacle and it was wonderful to get close to the Shearwaters, a bird that I saw for the first time last week. Suddenly the call came out that there was a large pod of Dolphins in the distance and we quickly got back underway and steamed in their direction. Five minutes later we were amongst the magnificent spectacle of a a large pod of Common Dolphin. We had already noticed how much bait and small fish there was in the high levels of the water and the dolphins were no doubt, following these fish shoals. Dolphins were leaping everywhere and sometimes they were just behind the boat and then on occasions right by the gunnels. It was hard to get a good photo because it was hard to predict where they were going to leap, most shots were of tails and flippers as the dive was missed by a a fraction. Amongst the pod was at least one youngster. This is one of the true wildlife spectacles in the UK. Dolphins are the only mammals that are totally untouched by human hand when in UK waters, they are not contained or culled, hunted or shot, nor are they penned and can come and go as any wild mammal would.
This is the second time that I have been really close to Common Dolphins which are a beautifully marked animal. They are sleek and this is reinforced by some sleek "go faster" stripes on the flanks. They are large and can be up to 9 feet long.
The Black Guillemot is not a species of seabird that I see very often, in actually fact up until my recent family trip to Anglesey at the end of July, I had never seen an adult in full colour. I went out on a tourist boat out of Beaumaris around the aptly named "Puffin Island" and yes we did see Puffin too, but for me though, the highlight was definitely the Black Guillemot pair that were spotted just off the island. This is a species that breeds in Scotland in several sites, on the Isle of Man and very rarely on the East of Anglesey so imagine how amazing it was to see a pair, a very lucky encounter because there are reckoned to be less than just 20 pairs breeding in Wales. As well as the Black Guillemot, later on in the day at South Stack , home of a massive colony of Razorbills, I climbed down towards the lighthouse and had some incredible views of them as they came in to their cliff ledges. I tried very hard to photograph them in flight and had some limited success. It occurred to me that there can't be many birds that are equally adept at flying and swimming.
I had been looking forward to a photographic boat trip organised by Nigel Smallbones since I booked several months ago. I boarded the boat "Optimist" just before 6pm on a bright sunny early evening, once the other 8 passengers had alighted we pulled out of Brigham Harbour strongly and at a a good rate of knots. As soon as speed restrictions allowed we were on our way to look for Harbour Porpoise off Berry Head. My main focus was going to be Shearwater which I have not photographed well in Devon before having taken just a few quite poor and distant shots from the Lundy Passenger ferry previously. At first things were a little quiet with just the usual gull species seen and a brief glimpse of a breaching porpoise the only sightings. The trip continued and wasn't too long before a fellow passenger caught sight of a Manx Shearwater and then several more. It looked as though I was going to have some success after all. More Manx flew by but all at a disappointing distance and although I took a few shots of these distant birds I didn't get the photos of the species that I wanted, (I did however manage to improve on pictures taken of this species before).
Amongst the now regular sightings of Shearwater were 2 or 3 Balearic Shearwater which is a "lifer" for me and I took a few, again distant poor record shots to add to my gallery of Devon Birds which now stands at 215 different species - all photographed in Devon of course.
When we were about 3 miles out, Nigel started to heave some foul smelling fish scraps overboard and this brought in dozens of Herring gulls, a Greater Black backed gull and a single Fulmar. However the highlight of the trip for me was the close views of the odd Gannet that joined us and I took my best ever photographs of this beautiful species. As you can see above, at times these Gannets were very close to us.
This one is quite interesting as it is a sub-adult with still some juvenile feathers retained. The lighting conditions were absolutely perfect for seabird photography. During the daytime it's hard to get good shots, particularly if there is a bright but cloudy sky. The camera tends to concentrate on the bright background and then under expose the subject but with the sun lowish in the sky and shining on the bird, photography is much easier.
I took so many pictures of the gannets it has been hard to decide which ones to post and it took me several hours of sorting through which started to get a bit tedious by the end. Obviously it is a matter of personal choice to decide which is the best but this one is quite a stunner!
It was fascinating to watch the birds sighting the fish offerings before turning in the air to dive down, arrow-like to take fish from beneath the surface. The have some specially adapted bone structures that protects them from damage when diving.
I mentioned the blue eye which in fact is not the actual eye but bare skin around it.
Look at the foot colour of this young Kingfisher, blackish on the normally bright crimson colour. Also the blackish smoky markings on the chest are diagnostic of a juvenile. There is also a light mark on the tip of the bill which remains almost in to adulthood. I would estimate that this bird has only been out of the nest burrow for a week or so but there are no nests sights within at least 2 miles from this spot. At this time of the year young Kingfishers move away from the nest territory to look to establish a territory of their own. I have photographed juvenile Kingfishers in this very spot in July for the last 6 years.
This young Kingfisher is always a skilled hunter and I have already seen him successfully catch 3 fish, I would expect him to do well and survive to adult. Note that he is dealing with the fish by swallowing headfirst, this is to stop the spines getting stuck in the throat and gut. This is instinctive behaviour. If you ever see a Kingfisher carrying a fish tail first you can assume that this bird would be carrying prey to a nest. Incidentally, he caught this Stickleback by momentarily hovering before the dive.
I haven't posted on the blog for a couple of weeks, it's been nice to have a break but I am back today with a vengeance. As many of my regular readers will know, I have had a lot of success over the years with Kingfishers on my local brook. This usually commences in July when the youngsters have fledged their nests and are looking to establish their own territories, I went for a walk this lunchtime to see if I could see any signs in the spots that I have photographed them every year since 2009, I literally walked 100 yards from the car and there was a Kingfisher, right on a perch across the slower trickling shallow water. I immediately went home and got my camera and went back.
Within 10 minutes it was back and I was excited to see it and have the opportunity to take photographs. It is a young newly fledged bird, a male I think. It has smokey black feet and dark smudges on the breast. A house sparrow perched close to it and this was enough to illicit an aggressive response from the nervous little bird. After a few seconds it dived in to the water and emerged with a massive River Minnow making this a very special 30 minutes or so.
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.
Another Cuckoo from the other day on Dartmoor.
This is arguably the best Cuckoo photograph that I have taken. It took a great deal of effort and patience. Cuckoos are only here in the UK for a relatively short time each summer and there is a short window when you can photograph them. I had to get up very early in the morning to make the trip out on to Dartmoor where, with lots of experience I have discovered some good sites to give me the potential to see them. It is really exciting when you have been sitting hidden amongst the moorland grass and bracken for a couple of hours and a Cuckoo suddenly flies in to land on the tree where you had anticipated it would. This bird is a male and it flew in to the territory of a female as I guessed it would. One of the highlights of the year so far.
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).