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.
I am going to mention my favourite little saying again today....thats "The 6 P's .......Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance........ that's almost the Royal Marine Motto, (of course it isn't....its Per Mare Per Teram, but you get the point).
When I went for a walk at dusk yesterday I had seen a Water Rail and heard others calling to each other nearby and then I saw one swim across from a little island to another. I stood motionless for an age waiting for it to happen again but all that did happen was the bird emerged from the island and then ducked back in again once it had caught sight of me. So I needed a plan. I went back this morning in really nice sunlight and sat myself near to the spot that I had seen it yesterday and used my favourite camo stuff to act as a screen. Well it was brilliant. Firstly, wearing waders I was sat with my legs dangling in the water. I was hidden behind the screen suspended on bamboo canes. I made a hole through the material to push the lens through and then another to peep out of. It was very pleasant even without birds and I enjoyed watching the Blue Tits who were feeding on the Reed Mace opposite. A kingfisher came in as well and perched on a sapling but was disturbed by some people not too far away. But I knew that my subterfuge was working well.
Then I heard a Water Rail "squealing" from the foliage just in front of me and then another to my right answered immediately. This gave me the confidence to remain still in my position. Then suddenly and after quite a wait, there was the Rail paddling through the water between the two mini islands. I snapped off shot after shot and then the bird paddled on the surface of the water for the last few feet before disappearing in to the foliage to my right where it had no doubt joined the other bird that I had answered. Success!!!! It's brilliant when I have a plan and it comes to fruition and what a lovely bird.
If the Water Rail wasn't enough, the garden suddenly came to life a few minutes ago. I had my very first Blackcap of the year, a Male amd then a Goldcrest, so a good garden bird day as well.
I have had a really enjoyable day today even though it could have been better given just a bit more luck. I had a phone call from my birding mates at just gone 11 to tell me to hurry to Darts Farm because the Penduline Tits (that have been around for the last week or so), were showing really well, close to the hide on the reed mace.....that's bullrush to you and me! I got there as quick as I could only to miss them by a minute or two! Davem Stone took great photos which you can see on his blog here. But in spite of that slight disappointment, I finally latched on to the Black Brant Goose (Branta bernicla nigricens) that's been here for several weeks as well. At one point the entire flock of overwintering Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) was stretched out in front of us in the meadow, quite a sight with around 500, or maybe even more. They reminded me of the grazing herds of the Serengeti.
Black bellied Brent Geese (thats the usual Brent Goose species, breed in Northern Russia and spend the winter in suitable estuaries in Southern England and East Anglia. They are a small goose with a contrasting white neck band that is incomplete on the throat. The Black Brant however, which is a sub-species, is a slightly larger bird with whiter flanks and a neck ring that is complete. It seemed today as though this bird was also much darker on the neck and head which is probable why it's called a Black Brant. The neck ring, as well as being complete, was also larger and more defined. Black Brant , or Pacific Black Brant breed in Alaska and overwinter in California with most of them wintering around Baja California in Northern Mexico. So having a Pacific Black Brant amongst the massive flocks of our "usual" Brent is quite an event really.
So, on this picture can you see the neck band that is like an expensive necklace and goes around on to the throat, unlike the normal Brent Geese that we are familiar with where the neck band does not extend on to the throat. Also look at the white, brown edged, flank feathers which are much darker in the normal Black bellied Brent.
Compare the two species below, quite obvious differences....Black - belied Brent on the left and Pacific Black Brant on the right. Incidentally this is the first photograph of this species for me and I have added it to my gallery of Devon Birds which now number 213 species.
I have spent the last couple of days staking out kingfishers on my local brook. Yesterday morning, I planted an enticing perch in the mud and then returned to set up the camera just down stream from it. I sat under some camouflage material that covered both me and the camera equipment After a couple of hours, cold and stiffness had set in so I came away with no success (yet). I returned later that day for the last hour and half for another try but again without any success. I am not to be deterred though and by 10 this morning, I was back for another try. I was massively encouraged when I got there because on and beneath the branch, three separate lots of white droppings stood out like a beacon, a sure sign that a Kingfisher had used my perch. So, it's just a matter of time and patience before I get a nice photograph of the resident Kingfisher to add to the hundreds and hundreds of close up Kingfisher photographs that I have taken there previously. It's always exciting to speculate about the "resident", male or females, adult or juvenile? Hopefully, I will have the answer in the next day or so. In the meantime, here are photographs of Kingfishers from previous years and taken from this very spot.
It isn't unusual of course, to get Coal Tits in the garden but I was pleased this lunchtime to actually have the first for several years. My neighbours have removed lots of foliage and trees from their gardens over the last couple of years and this has had a massive impact on the amount of birdlife in my garden this year. So, very pleased to have a nice Coal Tit today. Coal Tits are a species that seems to be doing well in the UK and now can be found in lots of different habitats, including regularly in gardens on feeders. This is a very small species smaller than a Blue Tit and now possibly just as common?
…and a nice Dunnock, a resident in my garden most of the time.
I have a collection of pictures on PBase. There are 6500 pictures of birds and other wildlife from all over the world. So far, these galleries have had more than 750,000 views..…three quarters of a million views….. incredible…..here's a link to the site.....
Well what can I say about today? It's been a good one for me and my bird photography. I mentioned the other day that there had been a "eureka"moment in my photography when I had discovered a way to get fast shutter speeds without causing extreme amounts of awful noise…… that's basically unsightly speckles on my pictures. I just knew that this would mean that my shots would move up to the next level and that is exactly what has happened. For example, one of my photos of a Greenfinch in flight was chosen as the Birdguides "photo of the week". This is one of the most sought after accolades for bird photographers, hotly contested and sought after by bird photographers in the UK. Then today I managed to get some great flight shots of greenfinch fighting. I have been trying for shots like this for years so I am pleased with the great results.
My Birdguides Photo of The Week
One of the best reasons to go to Sri Lanka is the opportunity to photograph the tern species that are stunning, common and beautiful and for an Englishman abroad, very exotic. The fish market in Negombo is one of the best places to photograph Whiskered Tern, they are attracted to the beach here because of the White Bait industry that goes on there on the beach.
On my last trip I photographed Whiskered, Gull-billed, Caspian, Roseate, Swift, Lesser Crested and Brown Noddy Tern, 7 different Tern species.....more Tern photos to follow in the coming days.
We are very fortunate here in South and East Devon to have a population of around 1000 breeding pairs of Cirl Buntings, apart from a small population in the adjoining county of Cornwall, this is the only place in the UK where you can see them. In the last 14 years the population has incressed from a hundred or so pairs to where we are now. This is due to work by the RSPB and local land owners and, credit where credit is due, the RSPB should be heartily congratulated. There are a few places in the county where food is put out for them to ensure their survival during the winter. I went to one of those feeding areas today to see how they were doing this year and obviously, to take some photographs and it was a very successful session. The males are certainly very distinctive, with a boldly patterned face; black and yellow, and hints of red on the back and red over yellow on the breast. A very pretty bird. Females could be confused with a Reed Bunting female but there is no white on the face. Even though birds were coming down to feed on the scattered seed almost constantly while I was there, it wasn't all that easy to get good pictures. Any movement would send them back in to the safety of the hedge so it was imperative that you stood very still. They are very well camouflaged in spite of the yellow face and they blend in with the earth and grasses very easily. It was also very interesting to see how they would react to an alarm call from other birds not on the ground. Just a single note would send them all, including the Dunnocks, Greenfinch and Robin, back in to the hedge only to reappear again one at a time until the area was covered in little birds feeding, to be repeated over and over. At one time the alarm was raised and they all hastily disappeared and didn't reappear but then I noticed a Buzzard soaring above and it was obvious that this time it wasn't a fa;se alarm. However it is most unlikely that a Buzzard would try to predate a tiny bird like this.
This is a tiny species, just 8cm long, around 3 1/2 inches. It is the Indian sub-continent's smallest bird species. They are quite a common bird in Sri Lanka but I hadn't seen them before my recent trip when I encountered them on three occasions this time. It seems that they are related to the Sunbirds but feed in a totally different way. Each time I saw them they were around, or attracted to the small wild flowering shrub called Lantana, (see above). This little plant is common in hot climates and in other parts of the world, where it is considered to be an invasive species and cleared. Judging by the amount of insect and bird life attracted to the shrub, it would seem wrong to eradicate it but understandable. For the same reason and In the same way that Ragwort is cleared in the UK, Lantana is also poisonous to livestock and here is the problem of course. Lantana is spread and propagated by the Flowerpeckers who feed on the pulp of the seed, discarding the pip to germinate nearby and there is an important relationship between the bird and the plant. You can see in the picture that the Flowerpecker is in the process of dealing with a seed.
I found this species to be a noisy little bird that was constantly calling and the call was very much like a sunbird. You can see that the bird is quite nondescript and aptly named. The beak is large for the size of the bird and downcurved, strong and powerful. This species is also called Tickell's Flowerpecker.
I have been trying off and on for the last few years, to take good photographs of small birds in flight. I have even at times thought that it is almost impossible to get the kind of results that I want with any consistency because cameras are just not capable of it, but of course, that's not true. Today I managed a lot more success by setting up the camera in a much different way. The problem is that having a fast shutter speed of at least 1/4000 of a second and a depth of field that is not too shallow (because small birds so easily move out of of the point of focus), you need to adjust the sensitivity of the camera, which in digital cameras is called ISO, in old film slr cameras it was asa. To achieve the high speeds needed and also to attain a depth of field that is going to give success…and today I had more success at f9, you need to have the ISO set to around 2000. But the problem with that is that there is such an annoying amount of noise on the image that it looks awful. Today I managed to set the camera up to avoid most of this noise which was a revelation, a eureka moment and I am very pleased with the results.
Looking at my galleries of birds of the world I was interested to compare my images of Buzzard species in the family Buteo. In the UK the resident common Buzzard is Buteo buteo but there are many more Buteo species throughout the world. I have been fortunate to photograph several of them and I have seen several otheres.
This is Buteo buteo, the Common Buzzard, a species that is doing very well in the UK, due no doubt to gamekeepers and the rest of the shooting fraternity being forced to act more responsibly. There have been some unfortunate acts of poisoning recently where Buzzards and other birds of prey have been targeted and the punishments in the courts have been ridiculously lenient. There are always calls from Gamekeepers running shoots, particularly in the North of England who try to get licenses to be allowed to control Buzzards that predate, probably only in tiny numbers, young pheasants. The Common Buzzard is a magnificent bird of prey and great to see and perhaps the Government should subsidise or reimburse Gamekeepers for the loss of their stock, everything comes down to money in the end after all.
I have enjoyed some magnificent views of another Buteo species, thi time in the USA, the Red-shouldered Hawk - Buteo lineatus. This is a slightly smaller bird, more brightly coloured and in my experience not quite so wary and therefore easier to get closer to. In the Everglades they are particularly approachable from a boat. I was literally just under the bare tree beneath this bird. It remained for 20 minutes or more with no fear whatsoever.
Then we have the Jackal buzzard - Buteo rufofuscus, which I have seen in South Africa. I have only managed to photograph this species in flight but even in this distant photo and of a young adolescent bird you can see what a colourfully and strongly marked bird this is. There is just the faintest start of black around the neck which will eventually cover the entire head.
The next image is a Forest Buzzard - Buteo trizonatus which is an endemic species to the Cape region of South Africa and the most frequently encountered there I believe.. This is a small Buzzard in comparison to the others. I saw and photographed this species as it soared close to Table Mountain.
…..and finally to compare, a Common Buzzard again, this time in flight as well, photographed at Budleigh Salterton, Devon UK. Incidentally, Common Buzzards are very variable in plumage and come in different shades and patterns of browns and whites, particularly on the breast and belly. For example, I saw a very pale bird the other day with an almost fully white front. This explains why they can easily be confused with other birds of prey, Osprey for example but the Osprey is a larger bird.
This is a female Chaffinch a small common finch in the UK. At feeders they don't often perch but instead, either feed on any spilt seed on the ground beneath the feeders or hover and try to grab a grain of seed in flight. This provides a really good photographic opportunity if you are interested in birds in flight…..as I am. As you probably know, to freeze flapping and fluttering wings without blur you need to have the fastest shutter speed possible, only available in really good light. With the advent of the latest digital cameras its possible to achieve 1/4000th of a second which is the speed you need to achieve anything worth keeping. You will also need to take hundreds of photos in a session and then, out of that, you may finish up with 1 or 2 percent that you are happy with. I have to say that I am extremely happy with this photo, just one out of 300!
In this photograph, two male Greenfinch are engaged in a spat and I mangaed to get a nice photograph of the action. I don't normally include photographs of birds on feeders as they are not particuarly photogenic but today, I have decided to make an exception.
Greenfinches are a species of bird that hasn't done too well over the last 5 years but it's good to see them seemingly doing a little better now. The males and females are quite easy to separate and in the next picture you can clearly see the difference......female on the left.
On my recent trip to Sri Lanka……hundreds more photos to sort through by the way, I was struck yet again at how easy it is to forget to photograph the common birds, thinking that , "oh well I will photograph them tomorrow" and in the end you never do. By the same token, birds that we take for granted here are largely ignored by photographers and for sure, by the twitchers. I am thinking of Starlings, our common finches of course and in particular our Moorhen and Coot. Well its worth remembering that to people from other countries, a Greenfinch would be a brilliant bird to see. In Sri Lanka the White breasted Hen is the Moorhen equivalent and I well remember how excited a professional guide in Sri Lanka became at the sight of a Eurasian Coot! So I have made a vow to photograph common birds whenever I see them. To that end here is one of our most familiar UK birds the humble Moorhen. A very attractive bird when you take a second glance.
Shame about the Electric Fence warning. …....oh, and here's a Great Spotted Woodpecker, this one is a female, she came down to the feeders regularly while I was waiting to photograph the small finches. This is the UK's commonest woodpecker species. Female's are distinguished by the absence of red on the head by the way. All in all, a pleasant but freezing cold morning and a nice way to ease my way back into birding and photography on an English winter's day. Not as exotic as Sri Lanka, but if you were are Sri Lankan birder you would say exactly the opposite!
I photographed this Loten's sunbird (Cinnyris lotenius) recently in Sri Lanka. I stood alongside the flowering shrub that you can see in the picture. I was in a sandy area that had scattered flowering shrubs and and I knew that Sunbirds were around because even though they are not easy to photograph, they are very vocal and defend their territories constantly and I could hear them vocalising. The shrub was attracting dozens of nectaring butterflies and I assumed that the sunbirds would also be attracted to the shrubs producing the most nectar. It seemed to me that the best idea was just to wait next to a likely food source. I always get most satisfaction from seeing an idea or plan work out and this is exactly what happened in this case. I waited patiently in the 32 degree heat, it can be unbearably hot and sticky at times but today it was a little cloudy which made it possible to stand out in the open. It wasn't long before a sunbird arrived in to the bush and I waited with bated breath as the bird came from the far side and towards the blooms on my side. I was thrilled to see that it was a Loten's Sunbird, the first that I have actually seen. Previously, I had photographed Purple Sunbird and mis-named Purple as Loten's, they are the same in coloration but the beak of the Loten's is comparatively massive, their other name is Long-billed Sunbird after all. This was either a young male or an adult in eclipse plumage with the vestiges of adult colours showing here and there. After a minute or two and after I had taken some of the best photographs imaginable, another sunbird arrived and this one was a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus). It was really educational for me to compare the two species. Then, very interestingly, the Purple, even though slightly smaller, was dominant over the Loten's and chased the larger bird off the blooms and out of the bush.
You can see in this picture that there is a large amount of adult colouring down the breast. But compare the two species in the photo of the Purple Sunbird in the same bush and you can see that the profile is noticeably different in both birds. Note how much longer the beak is in the Loten's. (By the way Loten was a Dutch naturalist). A great morning session and if anyone ever wonders why I vist Sri Lanka on my own and spend time away then here is your answer,
The Asian palm Swift (Cypsiurus balasiensis) is a bird that you can see almost constantly in the Sri Lankan skies. They are a small fast flying bird that breeds in coconut palm trees by glueing nesting material under the leaves of the palms with saliva. In common with most, if not all swift species, most of their needs are catered for on the wing. They don't drink, getting all their moisture from their insect prey, they mate on the wing and sleep on the wing. The only time that they perch is during the breeding season.
Something a bit different today, this is an Indian or Black-naped Hare - Lepus nigricollis seen and photographed recently in Sri Lanka in the North Western province at Wilpattu National Park. This is an interesting animal and seen on a few occasions during the jeep safari. A bit about the safari, this was a frustrating affair really with distant views of animals and birds that made photography quite difficult as the jeep needed to stick rigidly to the tracks and roads through the park. For example, we sighted Mugger Crocodile in the distance and one took a bird as we watched, probably a stork or heron but we could have done with being much, much closer to record what would have been some brilliant footage and photgraphs but from the distance this was impossible.
The tropical version of the UK's Sparrowhawk - Nisus Accipiter…......this is the Shikra - Accipiter badius. This bird obviously had a territory around Ravi's garden as I saw it twice during my recent stay. This is a female, males are greyish in colour and have a red eye. The one below was photographed at Wilpattu National Park.
On my recent trip to Sri Lanka I visited Chillaw Sand Spit yet again, my third visit to this area which is good for wading birds. When I had been there before my guide had shown me both Lesser and Greater Sand Plover so when I went back again this year and saw some small 'charadrius' plovers I had a good look at the photographs afterwards hoping that again, I had been lucky enough to see this interesting and not all that common little plover. It seems to me that you could easily confuse this species with the Kentish Plover but that species always has a white collar around the back of the head and Lesser Sand Plover never does. So Lesser Sand Plover it is then!
On each of my visits to Ravis house in Kamalla, Sri Lanka, I have enjoyed seeing and photographing the Indian Rollers that live in the Coconut Grove next to the house. They definitely nested in the grove earlier this year. The nest was in an old coconut tree, in the same tree was the nest hole of a Barbet and also a Ring Necked Parakeet. All three species seemed tolerant of each other. I have read that the closely related European Roller is an aggressive species and will kill other small birds, removing them from the nest hole before taking it over but I didn't observe any aggression from these birds. I was pleased when I went earlier this month to see a pair again in the same area but obviously can't be certain if it was the same birds seen there before but probably. I have watched them feeding on numerous occasions, they always feed by sitting on a high perch and sight hunting. When they see a prey item they fly down to the ground and then take it back up to the original perch. They feed on grasshoppers, beetles and small lizards. As you can see, they are stunning in flight.
Here is a potential prey item, it's an Oriental Garden Lizard or Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor). This lizard was photographed in the territory of the Rollers and would deffinitely be on the menu.