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.
I was up in West Yorkshire for a week over the New Year and staying not far from Wakefield where Yorkshire's first Blyth's Pipit has been for most of December (and still there as I write). The Blyths Pipit is closely related to the Meadow Pipit in who's company it was moving and feeding with. Apart from the call there are several factors which can visually separate this species from our familiar pipits. It is slightly larger and has a different pattern of marking on the breast, in fact when I studied my photos I could clearly see that Blyth's are devoid of any streaks on the belly and flanks whereas Meadow, Tree, Water and Rock Pipits (regularly seen UK pipits) have all got streaking and "ticking" on the flanks as well as the breast. I cannot describe myself at all as an expert on this species but I have seen perhaps thousands of Meadow Pipits, and loads of Rock and Tree Pipit but I confess that had I stumbled upon this bird I would have probably overlooked it as a Meadow Pipit. In total there are only 20 reports of this species in the UK but I suspect that others have been overlooked, perhaps regularly. It is a bird that breeds in Mongolia and overwinters in Sri Lanka! I was there in November and I saw a pipit which departed before I could ID it and Blyth's was one of the species that I suspected it to be, so who knows….it may have been my second Blyth's Pipit of the year. It wasn't an easy species to photograph because of the habitat and the grasses that mostly obscured a good view. Perhaps this is the rarest bird that I have photographed in the UK in fact it probably is so I hope you will excuse a bit of grass!
The Red Squirrel is a mammal that has celebrity status in the UK. They are very scarce because of several factors. The introduced Easter Grey Squirrel is implicated in much of their struggle and it is true to say that where you find Grey Squirrels you are unlikely to find Reds. There is very little aggressive interaction between the two species even though Greys are larger and seemingly more robust. The main threat from Greys is Squirrel pox which is present in 40% of the population but is never fatal to them, however once spread to a Red Squirrel it usually is. In addition to the problems associated with this disease there are environmental factors involved due mainly to loss of habitat but I have not been able to discover why loss of habitat is not a problem with Grey Squirrels also? It is possible to find greys in suburban parks and gardens so perhaps the grey is more adaptable and not so specific in habitat requirements.
High tide coincided with dawn this morning so I went out to Turf which is where the Exeter Ship Canal spills in to the River Exe Estuary. I arrived before dawn to get in to position before the tide turned so that I could get in to position before sunrise and not disturb the resting and roosting birds. It worked really well except that the height of the tide had already risen to cover the hole I was going to conceal myself in. I managed to hide myself under my camo stuff though and as the dawn arrived and it got lighter and lighter, I could see that there was a Grey Plover perched on one of the few nearby posts which was just clear of the water. During the next hour or so, as it got brighter, I took lots of photos and in the end finished up with some half decent shots but there is so much more that I could acheive here if I just all came together and I am sure with a bit more effort, it will.
This is obviously a different bird, probably a juvenile. I had some good opportunities to photograph the roosting Dunlin and I really like this picture
It was almost dark when I took this picture, at around 4,25 this afternoon. I had returned to the spot at Turf on the Exe where yesterday I had seen that the Plovers, Dunlin and Lapwing were using the old posts there to roost at high tide. The problem today though was that high tide was one hour later and this meant that I almost ran out of light before the birds came in to their roost. You may, or may not be aware that wading birds don't roost at night but rather roost at high tide. So with the sun set coinciding with high tide is not all that regular. I tucked myself in the hole and covered myself with cam netting and then sat and waited for the tide to come in and for the birds to come and roost. As you can see one Plover arrived just before the light finally faded and I took the opportunity to get at least some photos. I am quite sure that when high tide coincides with a sunny afternoon again in a month or so, I am going to be able to get some great photographs of the waders here. As I sat and waited I was pleased to see Red - crested Mergansers fishing in the rising tide and quite close to shore.
Having spent a while this morning looking for Water Rail without success, I came home at midday with the intention of going out again to Turf later in the afternoon for the opportunity to photograph the wading birds. Turf is smack in the middle of the Exe Estuary a Site of Special Scientific Interest and always a great place for birds. I like Grey Plover and have photographed them frequently at this site. There are some old wooden posts that used to support some kind of wooden structure and the wading birds like to perch on these at high tide. However its never easy to get close to them, but always worth a try. I got myself down in-between a cleft in the rocks, I was uncomfortable but I was mostly hidden and I thought I might have a chance at a photograph if and when the Plovers came back, I was pretty sure they would. I was experimenting with the camera, taking photos of the wooden pillars, rotten and decayed they were quite photogenic and full of character even without a bird perched on the top. Then suddenly there it was, a beautiful Kingfisher catching the golden rays of the setting sun. I was thrilled to say the least, who wouldn't love to see a Kingfisher and your spirits always soar when you are close enough to photograph one. I knew it was about to dive so I set the camera to record this and then down he went….yes it's a male…… . I have seen better shots of diving Kingfishers but it was great to see. Then after it had dived unsuccessfully, there it was again and this time right next to me. I took some shots but he was silhouetted against the white sky. ……Oh and Grey Plover, yes they did come back and here's a shot or two of them as well.
A Collared Dove in the garden yesterday afternoon just before dusk, taken with the Sigma 500 4.5…. The shot below was taken with the 4.5 with a 1.4 convertor attached. Good to have my lens back after all this time. Absolutely no qualms about recommending the lens, but their customer relations needs some kind of serious overhaul.
Back in late September I fell and damaged my Sigma 4.5, 500 lens. It was a disappointment and I was quite upset about it. It's an expensive and over-priced bit of kit that cost me 10 x's more than my car, at a penny under £5000. A ridiculous price really and it was a massive leap of faith when I bought it. So, as soon as I could, I sent it off to Sigma UK for repair and was told that it was going to cost me the best part of £650, but what could I do but accept this inflated and avaricious cost.?
So off it went for repair and I was hoping to have it back within the month because I would have liked to take it Sri Lanka with me. It didn't happen though, Sigma said they were waiting for a part from Japan and deliveries from there were only once a week. An almost acceptable reason but I was disappointed and went to Sri Lanka under equipped with just my 300 lens and a converter. So back from Sri Lanka 3 weeks later and I heard nothing from Sigma, in itself a quite unacceptable state of affairs and a gross neglect of customer relations on their part in my opinion. Weeks turned in to months and I kept my distance just to see how long it would be before they contacted me..... and they didn't. In the end my confidence began to wain and I started to worry that the lens could have been lost in the post on it's way back to me. So after 10 weeks I called, after a few minutes of explaining my situation, I was put through to the department and told quite calmly without apology that the lens was being worked on right now and I would have it back within the next day or so.
Absolute bunkum! I am expected to believe that coincidentally the lens was almost ready and they were working on it as I rang. In my opinion, what happened was this. So poor are their customer relations, systems and also their concerns about the customer that it had probably been finished for weeks and was sat in a pile with other finished jobs and they just couldn't be bothered. Or, are they are just so rushed off their feet, or who knows what else that they only react when a customer finally has enough and rings to complain. How do I come to this conclusion? Because I have a photographer friend who's lens took six weeks to repair and he only got it back after he rang and guess what they said? "Oh, we are working on it and you will have it in the next day or so" Make your own mind up, but do you think that in any other industry a customer would be kept waiting for a repair for more than 10 weeks? This is not meant as a slanderous post about Sigma UK but I make no apology for stating the facts as they happened. It's neither a criticism or insult to Sigma UK. Its the way it happened and it's up to you to formulate your own opinion.
I have now contacted Sigma UK and told them that I have blogged the story, given them a link to this post and asked them if they would like to make a comment and explain their side of the story? Their response is below.
"We try to turn our repairs around in 1 to 5 days. In the case of your lens which is a Pentax, spare parts are hard to come by from the manufacturers and if it had been a Canon or Nikon repair then it would have been quicker. Once the repair was underway we had to re-order parts from Japan which we had to wait for."
There was no apology from them. There was no comment about the lack of contact with me except to say that they always try to expediate repairs for professional photographers. In other words, had I been a pro photographer they would have pulled their finger out, can you believe that?
I sat waiting for an elusive Water Rail to make an appearance this afternoon. They are incredibly cautious at times. I saw two though and heard their calling several times but didn't have the luck to get a photo today in spite of sitting there in the rain and drizzle for almost 3 hours. I was quite surprised when suddenly this Cormorant surfaced right in front of me. It proved that my camouflage was working I suppose. I normally don't have a problem with Cormorants, especially if I see different species when I am abroad but when I am in he UK, I always feel a bit sad to see them when they are fishing in the many freshwater courses and lakes. They take a very large amount of fish and in a single day they can consume a few kilos of fish. If you multiply that by the growing numbers of Cormorants here then I would be right to think they are doing a fairly large amount of damage to freshwater fish stocks in the UK. No wonder that anglers hate them.