After a week away in the Balearic Islands I returned to Devon just in time to join the weekly boat trip in to Lyme Bay out of Brixham, coincidentally to photograph Balearic Shearwater. This species is critically endangered due to a large decline in population. It is hard to assess the numbers but it is thought that if the decline continues at the rate it is, they will become extinct. within 20 years or so. The weather was much rougher than it had been on previous trips and at first it looked as though we were just going to enjoy the bumpy trip with only a few sightings of Shearwaters, mostly Manx and they were quite distant. Other passengers saw and even managed a photo of a Sooty Shearwater and then later on in the trip fortunately so did I but it was a distant shot that just conformed the sighting, my first for Devon. The boat was heaving about and there was also a heavy spray, it wasn't looking too good to be honest but there is always anticipation. Conditions did ease though and by the end it was much calmer. Nigel Smallbones who is the organiser - and hats off to him by the way - started to throw the contents of a large bucket overboard. This smelly concoction included fish heads, innards and the remains of a good days fishing. A few gulls had the freebies to themselves at first but then others joined us, and the two were suddenly 30ish as well as a few Gannets a Fulmar and immature and adult Kittiwake.
Kittiwake, surely the UK's prettiest gull.
Quite suddenly a Balearic Shearwater flew in from a distance following the chum line it was flying swiftly and low over the water and approached our stern in a really spectacular way. I was thrilled to watch it approach and called out to everyone else that it was on the way. There was much excitement from everybody. When this had happened on a previous trip I hadn't been too pleased with my pictures so I was determined to get it right this time. It came in, grabbed some food and we left it behind but three times it came back in to us. I have to confess that I really enjoyed the experience of being so close to such a rare and unusual bird.
A Balearic Shearwater flies in to the stern of the boat.
In the sea grabbing bits of fish.
The swell at times almost swamped the bird. Here below, it paddles on the surface.
... and then grabs prey under the water.
I've been in Minorca, one of the Balearics - for the last week, a very popular holiday destination with Northern Europeans keen to get some guaranteed sunshine. With cloudless blue skies pretty much a cert and the UK £ strong against the struggling Euro, it's a very popular destination. I always find it a little bit boring though, sitting in the sun sweating and panting in the heat is not my favourite pastime, but it's a massive pleasure to see my beautiful granddaughter enjoying life so much. You would imagine that there would be obvious and regular wildlife sightings to see and record but it's not really like that. I think, because of the heat. Most birds for example are skulking away in the thick scrubby undergrowth but the common birds that you catch a glimpse of are good ones. For example, the 2 common gull species here are both good birds, the almost uniquely "red billed" Audouins Gull is rarely if ever seen in the UK and the Yellow-legged gull replaces the UK's ubiquitous Herring Gull. Kites, both Red and Black are common and Booted Eagle is often seen. Frustratingly, I know that Nightingales are very common but you rarely catch sight of them even though they are heard almost constantly when in the right habitat, low thick scrub which they share with two other species that are very common here, Cettis and Sardinian Warbler. Woodchat Shrike are seen on every road trip and White Stork too. On the negative side, this little island has pretty much been destroyed to make way for the tourist with bare breasts and buttocks making any fully equipped photographer feel slightly uneasy. One of the more common birds is the Spotted Flycatcher and I have seen them regularly whenever I have visited, this year was no exception. Any self respecting butterfly enthusiast would have a field day with every species seen, an unusual one.
Audouin's gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii)
From Wikipedia: The Audouin's gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii) is a large gull restricted to the Mediterranean and the western coast of Saharan Africa. It breeds on small islands colonially or alone, laying 2-3 eggs on a ground nest. As is the case with many gulls, it has traditionally been placed in the genus Larus. In the late 1960s, this was one of the World's rarest gulls, with a population of only 1,000 pairs. It has established new colonies, but remains rare with a population of about 10,000 pairs. This species, unlike many large gulls, rarely scavenges, but is a specialist fish eater, and is therefore strictly coastal and pelagic. This bird will feed at night, often well out to sea, but also slowly patrols close into beaches, occasionally dangling its legs to increase drag. The adult basically resembles a small European herring gull, the most noticeable differences being the short stubby red bill and "string of pearls" white wing primary tips, rather than the large "mirrors" of some other species. The legs are grey-green. It takes four years to reach adult plumage. This species shows little tendency to wander from its breeding areas, but there were single records in the Netherlands and England in May 2003. This bird is named after the French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin.
Spotted Flycatcher. A common bird on Minorca, this is a juvenile which was feeding on the edge of a fruit orchard.
I photographed this lovely butterfly, a tiny insect in fact. I am pretty sure that it is a Langs Short tail, Leptotes pirithous a small butterfly with a wingspan of 21–29 mm in males and 24–30 mm in females. The uppersides of the wings are purple bluish in males, bluish-brown in female. The undersides are dark beige striped with white lines. The hindwings show marginal orange and black spots and two small tails.
Friday's trip was cancelled because of the inclement weather and instead we went out on Sunday morning for three hours. We set sail at 0900 and by 0920 it was obvious that we were going to see hundreds and hundreds of Manx Shearwater with a dozen or so of the critically endangered Balearic Shearwater amongst them. The conditions were calm and most of the birds were sitting rafted up in groups of hundreds of birds, far too many to count. Whilst chumming the Balearics showed a little bit of interest but mostly stayed with the Manx who rarely if ever feed from the back of trawlers and fishing boats whereas the much rarer Balearics are known for this behaviour. We tried hard not to disturb the rafts of birds and it was, as always, very hard to get a good photograph. On the way back in, after a great morning we encountered at least three small groups of Harbour Porpoise. All in all a great way to spend an August Sunday morning.
Did I improve on my images of Manx I wonder, I hope I got close, just very occasionally the Manx "sheared" close to the boat giving those on board a wonderful spectacle. Its easy to separate the two species, the Manx having much more white on the belly and a clear distinction between light and dark on the face. One of the other passengers got very excited because she saw a Sooty Shearwater amongst large rafts but it was never actually confirmed.
In my previous post about Dolphins - see here - I mentioned the great sightings I had of both Manx and Balearic Shearwaters. The conditions were really good when we first left Brixham harbour, but later on in the trip the sun was hidden behind cloud which made photography a little more difficult. However, within a few minutes of leaving harbour we came upon a raft of Manx Shearwater, a dozen or so birds were surface diving on to small bait fish. Last week the birds had kept quite a distance from the boat but on this occasion one bird in particular was right there quite close to the boat. I took a series of shots as it glided past the boat, the white belly and throat contrasting with the dark uppers and long dark wings.
What an absolute thrill I had last night. I was on a boat trip in to Lyme Bay out from Brixham on the "Optimist" with 8 other passengers, a trip organised by Nigel Smallbones. I had been on the same trip last Friday evening and had a great time then, but last night was really, really special. We started by pushing out of the harbour at a lively pace, again like last Friday, in to a glorious calm and sunny evening. We were in to a raft of Manx Shearwater almost immediately and we had absolutely brilliant views of them. The sea was almost "millpond" calm and it was really beautiful conditions, warm and bright. I managed some great photographs as one of the Shearwaters came close to the boat and I will post those pictures in another entry. It was going really well and immensely enjoyable, we constantly came upon more and more Manx Shearwater and then amongst them there was three Balearic Shearwater which is a great bird to see in Devon waters. We pushed further out in to Lyme Bay and we were around 6 miles off Brixham now. Chum was being thrown out to attract the gulls, gannets and suddenly two Balearic Shearwater came in to the offerings and were only feet from us. This was quite a spectacle and it was wonderful to get close to the Shearwaters, a bird that I saw for the first time last week. Suddenly the call came out that there was a large pod of Dolphins in the distance and we quickly got back underway and steamed in their direction. Five minutes later we were amongst the magnificent spectacle of a a large pod of Common Dolphin. We had already noticed how much bait and small fish there was in the high levels of the water and the dolphins were no doubt, following these fish shoals. Dolphins were leaping everywhere and sometimes they were just behind the boat and then on occasions right by the gunnels. It was hard to get a good photo because it was hard to predict where they were going to leap, most shots were of tails and flippers as the dive was missed by a a fraction. Amongst the pod was at least one youngster. This is one of the true wildlife spectacles in the UK. Dolphins are the only mammals that are totally untouched by human hand when in UK waters, they are not contained or culled, hunted or shot, nor are they penned and can come and go as any wild mammal would.
This is the second time that I have been really close to Common Dolphins which are a beautifully marked animal. They are sleek and this is reinforced by some sleek "go faster" stripes on the flanks. They are large and can be up to 9 feet long.
The Black Guillemot is not a species of seabird that I see very often, in actually fact up until my recent family trip to Anglesey at the end of July, I had never seen an adult in full colour. I went out on a tourist boat out of Beaumaris around the aptly named "Puffin Island" and yes we did see Puffin too, but for me though, the highlight was definitely the Black Guillemot pair that were spotted just off the island. This is a species that breeds in Scotland in several sites, on the Isle of Man and very rarely on the East of Anglesey so imagine how amazing it was to see a pair, a very lucky encounter because there are reckoned to be less than just 20 pairs breeding in Wales.
As well as the Black Guillemots, later on in the day at South Stack, home of a massive colony of Razorbills, I climbed down towards the lighthouse and had some incredible views of the them as they came in to their cliff ledges. I tried very hard to photograph them in flight and had some limited success. It occurred to me that there can't be that many birds that are equally adept at flying and swimming.
I had been looking forward to a photographic boat trip organised by Nigel Smallbones since I booked several months ago. I boarded the boat "Optimist" just before 6 pm on a bright sunny early evening, once the other 8 passengers had alighted we pulled out of Brigham Harbour strongly at a a good rate of knots and as soon as speed restrictions allowed we were on our way to look for Harbour Porpoise off Berry Head. My main focus was going to be Shearwater which I have not photographed well in Devon before having taken just a few quite poor and distant shots from the Lundy Passenger ferry previously. At first things were a little quiet with just the usual gull species seen and a brief glimpse of a breaching porpoise the only sightings. The trip continued and wasn't too long before a fellow passenger caught sight of a Manx Shearwater and then several more. It looked as though I was going to have some success after all. More Manx flew by but all at a disappointing distance and although I took a few shots of these distant birds I didn't get the photos of the species that I wanted, (I did however manage to improve on pictures taken of this species before). Here is the best one so it was definitely worth the few pounds boat fee and the time invested, in fact it was a great evening and Nigel Smallbones needs to be congratulated on organising it.
Amongst the now regular sightings of Shearwater were 2 or 3 Balearic Shearwater which is a "lifer" for me and I took a few, again distant poor record shots to add to my gallery of Devon Birds which now stands at 215 different species - all photographed in Devon of course.
When we were about 3 miles out, Nigel started to heave some foul smelling fish scraps overboard and this brought in dozens of Herring gulls, a Greater Black backed gull and a single Fulmar. However the highlight of the trip for me was the close views of the odd Gannet that joined us and I took my best ever photographs of this beautiful blue eyed species. As you can see above, at times these Gannets were very close to us.
This one is quite interesting as it is a sub-adult with still some juvenile feathers retained. The lighting conditions were absolutely perfect for seabird photography. During the daytime it's hard to get good shots, particularly if there is a bright but cloudy sky. The camera tends to concentrate on the bright background and then under expose the subject but with the sun lowish in the sky and shining on the bird, photography is much easier.
I took so many pictures of the gannets it has been hard to decide which ones to post and it took me several hours of sorting through which started to get a bit tedious by the end. Obviously it is a matter of personal choice to decide which is the best but this one is quite a stunner!
It was fascinating to watch the birds sighting the fish offerings before turning in the air to dive down, arrow-like to take fish from beneath the surface. The have some specially adapted bone structures that protects them from damage when diving.I mentioned the blue eye which in fact is not the actual eye but bare skin around it.
Look at the foot colour of this young Kingfisher, blackish on the normally bright crimson colour. Also the blackish smoky markings on the chest are diagnostic of a juvenile. There is also a light mark on the tip of the bill which remains almost in to adulthood. I would estimate that this bird has only been out of the nest burrow for a week or so but there are no nests sights within at least 2 miles from this spot. At this time of the year young Kingfishers move away from the nest territory to look to establish a territory of their own. I have photographed juvenile Kingfishers in this very spot in July for the last 6 years.
This young Kingfisher is always a skilled hunter and I have already seen him successfully catch 3 fish, I would expect him to do well and survive to adult. Note that he is dealing with the fish by swallowing headfirst, this is to stop the spines getting stuck in the throat and gut. This is instinctive behaviour. If you ever see a Kingfisher carrying a fish tail first you can assume that this bird would be carrying prey to a nest. Incidentally, he caught this Stickleback by momentarily hovering before the dive.
I haven't posted on the blog for a couple of weeks, it's been nice to have a break but I am back today with a vengeance. As many of my regular readers will know, I have had a lot of success over the years with Kingfishers on my local brook. This usually commences in July when the youngsters have fledged their nests and are looking to establish their own territories, I went for a walk this lunchtime to see if I could see any signs in the spots that I have photographed them every year since 2009, I literally walked 100 yards from the car and there was a Kingfisher, right on a perch across the slower trickling shallow water. I immediately went home and got my camera and went back.
Within 10 minutes it was back and I was excited to see it and have the opportunity to take photographs. It is a young newly fledged bird, a male I think. It has smokey black feet and dark smudges on the breast. A house sparrow perched close to it and this was enough to illicit an aggressive response from the nervous little bird. After a few seconds it dived in to the water and emerged with a massive River Minnow making this a very special 30 minutes or so.
There was a female Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) on the Exe Estuary today. It is highly unusual that a bird that breeds in the Arctic north specifically, circumpolar, on the Arctic coasts of Europe (Iceland and Norway), and Asia (Russia) North America (Canada, Alaska, USA and Greenland). There is no explanation for one seen here in Devon today right in the middle of the European summer. I took some photographs of the bird that was fishing in the shallow tidal waters right in front of Exton Station on the Avocet Line. This is a pretty little duck and a massive rarity in the south of England at this time of the year.
This last few days has seen me trying to get close to Whinchats on Dartmoor. This is a species of chat that, unlike the Stonechat, is a migrant that winters in Africa. I have been fortunate enough to see this species in The Gambia which was a thrill. Dartmoor is a typical breeding habitat for the species. It is an upland area, relatively isolated and quiet. The habitat is moorland with thick scrubby grass and boggy areas with scattered old hawthorns, bracken and gorse. Fundamentally I would imagine that seclusion is the primary requirement and good nest sites are part of this. In common with several other Dartmoor nesting species, such as Meadow Pipit, Tree Pipit and Stonechat they nest on the ground.
A clutch of eggs.
The nest is a small cup of fibre and grasses hidden in the grass and even when you know the location within a few square metres, it can be incredibly difficult to find. Eggs are a gorgeous vivid turquoise blue and while I abhor the concept of egg collecting I can understand why someone with a less ethical and criminal attitude would be attracted to a bird's egg. For me an egg is a beautiful jewel without equal in the natural world.
A female Whinchat.
I have enjoyed watching a pair of Willow Warblers this week. They are nesting close to a path and high up in a bank but very close to the ground. The tiny nest is really well concealed and it has to be because predation is very common and a large percentage of nests fail. For this reason the young grow rapidly and fledge the nest at around 11 to 12 days old. They work really hard to feed their clutch and are constantly collecting prey and will deliver to the nest around 10 times an hour.
The video is best viewed on an iPad.
I was lucky enough to be shown this nest by a BTO registered ringer and nest finder on Dartmoor this week. With some real patience, fieldcraft and common sense I took some lovely photos and video. The Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) is a small and common warbler that breeds on Dartmoor as well as in numerous other habitats and locations in the UK and Europe. They nest on the ground, for example in a depression, perhaps made by a cow's hoof on a bank, typically amongst grass and vegetation. The nest is hard to find and even when I returned, after being shown it 12 hours earlier I really struggled to relocate it. Once found I moved back to 30 yards or so and watched as the parents came in to feed the youngsters. Once I was really sure and confident that the birds were uncaring of me I moved just a tiny bit closer and then set up a video camera on to the nest. You can be assured that the birds were not disturbed at all or they would not have been coming in to feed the nestlings as you can see in the video. The footage took 40 minutes to film and in that time the parents visited 7 times, multiply that by 16 hours of daylight and you can see that the birds deliver food around 160 times in a day! That's some kind of shift and a lot of prey needs to be available which includes all sorts of insects and caterpillars.
As well as the Willow Warbler I was also privileged to be shown Whinchat nests with both eggs and others with nestlings. It's sometimes hard to even find a Whinchat let alone find a nest so again this was a massive thrill for me. I plan to visit again today to film the activity at these nests. Again, the safety of the birds will be of paramount importance. I would just like to mention at this point that I am a Schedule 1 licensed bird photographer and to get the licence you need to fulfil a list of criteria which includes references from wildlife experts and senior members of the community as well as proving to Natural England that you have the necessary skills and acumen to photograph at a nest without disturbance. To whet the appetite here is the nest of a Whinchat which the BTO ringer checked and we took a quick photograph of. Again the nest is on the ground and hidden away in the grass and vegetation.
The male displaying on the rock beneath the female.
So this is D Day and we are now in to summer without a doubt. I arrived at the cuckoo territory before 8 o'clock, confident that the early morning - well relatively early for me - would bring me some success. I hiked up to the spot and began to set up. Imagine my disappointment when opposite, I could see tents and people camping. I went to chat to them and discovered that they were about to pack up their stuff and leave. Even before they did I had some success though. Their was the usual bubbling sound that I have associated with mating behaviour and first a female arrived in the tree followed with much excitement from both me and the cuckoo, a male. He landed close to her and with even more excitement, again from us both and carried on serenading her with that call song that we all know so well.
The female attracts her mate and watches him display.
At 9 15 the campers left and I knew that I was going to do better now, at least I hoped. I was right because at 9.30 the male was back on the tree and I got some of the best views that I have had so far this year - not realising that better was to come in just a few minutes. The male stayed in the tree for a few minutes before flying down to the ground and I was hoping it would perch on a really photogenic perch that I had seen it on - from a distance though- yesterday. It didn't but instead it flew off ,strongly calling as it went, sex was on it's mind. The next event was the return of the female, followed seconds later by the male again. She remained in the tree but then some fascinating and extremely interesting behaviour occurred. The male flew down to a rock where he proceeded to display to her. He swayed slowly and deliberately from side to side and cocked his tail beautifully. He then flew to a near log and carried on with the display. All the while the female watched from above. It was as though he was in an arena and he was putting on a show for her, reminiscent of a lyre bird displaying in a lek. I was witnessing behaviour that others had rarely seen I would guess. After a short while she left the tree and he flew after her very strongly and right above my head in the hide, just a foot or so from me, as I said,sex was on his mind. When I had arrived this morning I had hoped for some good photo opportunities but I never imagined that they would be as good as this.
Having had such good cuckoo success yesterday I couldn't wait for the new day to dawn, then the weather forecast seemed to indicate a front moving through but I decided to risk it anyhow and I was back on the moor by around 9 o'clock. I set up overlooking the tree where I had photographed the bird yesterday and it wasn't long before Cuckoos were calling - at least 2 and I watched them flying from tree to tree but not close enough for a photograph. After an hour and with a Cuckoo calling almost constantly and not too far away, I decided to change tack and see if I could stalk up to where it was perched. I knew this would be really hard but I could see a cuckoo now, low on and old dead tree stump. I watched as it flew down to feed and I thought I could get much closer but I was wrong! As I approached, almost on my belly - defying my age some would say - I was almost in position when suddenly from the tree above me another cuckoo - probably a female - flew out followed by the male who had now seen me as well! I was disappointed but now I knew where they are feeding. I sat myself under a tree opposite and got myself camouflaged and hidden and began to wait. Unfortunately the weather worsened and the promised wet front arrived. I was shrouded in a mist and a steady drizzle began to fall. I peered out of a hole in my cam stuff and then, suddenly there was a female cuckoo flying in against the strong breeze. It landed right on the tree where I hoped one would! She was wet through and probably didn't appreciate the mobbing of a meadow pipit which usually happens. She remained long enough for me to take a few nice pics before, with the mobbing pipit in tow, she flew to my right and in to a nearby hawthorn. I was going to swing my camera around to her but the pipit got the better of her and she flew off again strongly. I love it when I put in a lot of effort and plan a strategy and it pays off, so today's encounter and subsequent photograph was very rewarding.
This is the best time to see and if you are lucky and have some knowledge of what it takes, the best time to photograph Cuckoos. I have been lucky this last few years but this year it has been hard work. I decided to put in a real shift yesterday and eventually it paid off with a great encounter involving both a male and the lovely female in the photographs. I first heard a cuckoo quite a distance away after waiting patiently for 7 hours, it had been that long between hearing one when I arrived and eventually hearing another - or the same one of course. It kept calling and then after a long while it was calling again but now much closer, I caught sight of it and made my way nearer with myself covered in cam netting. It was a male bird of course and it moved on without me getting close enough for a a good photograph but I could hear it further to my right. Then suddenly right where the male had been, there was a female and she was perched close now and I managed to get a shot or two as she flew down to feed. Success at last!
I had an enchanting encounter with a family of young foxes yesterday evening, just before sunset. I had seen a fox by my caravan hide the other day, as I quietly made my way there I could see a fox just sitting there in the sun, whats more, it didn't seem to be all that alert or wary and I walked ever closer to it. Then later on, my friend Dick told me that he had seen a vixen and cubs there recently so I thought I would go back with the camera and see if I could get a photo or two. Again, as I approached the gate I saw three cubs who were playing in the grass and oblivious to me but eventually they disappeared in to the cover of the woodland. It wasn't long before one came out again and continued to romp around in the long grass and amongst the wild flowers. It came ever closer and closer to me but was still 30 feet away from my position as I stood out in the open but very still. The wind was blowing in my direction so it probably couldn't scent me. I pursed my lips and made a few loud squeaks which really got the little fox interested and it started to approach me. I have seen my brother do this and knew it worked but I didn't have an idea that it would be so effective. I squeaked again and again and in the end it was literally no more than 6 feet from me, it just couldn't resist being inquisitive. and I could see why it hadn't seen me. One eye was damaged and instead of a bright sparkle there was a white sunken and bloody socket. The poor animal had lost an eye and this was why it was struggling with the concept of caution. I would suspect that with nature being kindest to the strong and fit, this young animal will soon meet its end sadly. How stupid is a fox that would approach a grown man's squeak? Later on I saw an adult fox and tried the squeak again. This time the wary, intelligent animal hastily made its way in to the undergrowth proving that if you want to live to adulthood and you are a fox you have to learn that its probably not a good idea to walk towards a strange sound.
In the photo below, you can see how close the cub came and also it's nasty injury that will have such a massive impact on it's life expectancy.
I love Stonechats! I was out on Dartmoor this morning, looking for Cuckoos and to try for some photos of this great species. There is such a small window in which to be successful because in a few weeks time the males will already be heading south back on migration. It was unbearably cold this morning, I could only manage an hour before I was cold right through to my bones. I had seen a Cuckoo and heard one in the distance but I think the windy conditions had made it a difficult day for them as well as me. On my walk back to the car I had my attention drawn by this Stonechat which is exactly what he was trying to do, draw my attention away from his nest! They are such lovely birds though.
Having recently returned from Spain it has taken me a couple of days to get back in to the swing of things and get out birding again. Yesterday I went out to the area on Dartmoor where I had seen and photographed Cuckoos last year. I am a few days earlier than last year though and I would suggest that the time of year, perhaps even down to the day is very important. The Cuckoos seen last year - and in previous years - have all been feeding on small caterpillars on short grass and I would guess that the development of the caterpillars is vitally important. As soon as there is a good source of prey in the form of moth caterpillars then I am hopeful that the Cuckoos will come in to feed. I did get very close to a Cuckoo yesterday but unfortunately it was perched on the tree behind me - very close - but not on the tree in front of me! Never the less, it was a massive thrill when after sitting for a couple of hours, suddenly there was a Cuckoo and doing it's thing only a few feet away. In previous years I had watched small birds, including Pied Flycatcher and Common Redstarts coming to feed on the same caterpillars and seeing these from just a few feet away was almost as thrilling as the Cuckoos. So far this year, I have had the immense pleasure of having Meadow Pipits feeding almost around my feet as I sat camouflaged. This is always a great thing to happen because it proves beyond doubt that I am sufficiently well concealed. The bird (above) was coming in to the short grass on average around every 20 minutes or so and filling it's beak with small invertebrates before probably flying back to a nest somewhere nearby to feed its young. Check back next week because I am going to continue looking and hopefully I will photograph a nice Cuckoo (for the 4th year running incidentally).
This is a Griffon Vulture, one of 72 species and around 30 photographed so far. This is an amazing place and so close to the UK. Photographic conditions are difficult due to the high intense and very bright sunshine which casts shadow over the subject. However, I have managed good photographs of around 30 species so far - 36 hours in to this guided trip with Griffon Tours. Highlights birdwise so far has been the 10 "lifers" - birds that I have seen for the first time - Calandra Lark, Short toed Lark, Montagues Harrier, Spanish Imperial Eagle and Serin to name only 4........ how could I forget Black-bellied Sandgrouse!!! Off today to see more beauties.
This is a Pallid Swift.
There hasn't been many posts here this last week because I haven't had as much success as normal. I have missed lots of other good birds in Devon as well as I have been concentrating on getting the very best photographs of Peregrines, Kestrel and - really unusually - Stock Dove...... Stock Dove I hear you ask? But more about that later. I have enjoyed my stake outs at my hide though but this has stopped me photographing other birds and then when you don't have any success it seems like a lot of wasted time. Both yesterday and today for example, I spent a total of 6 hours sitting waiting for a bird to land on the old oak tree but it was a total failure, worth waiting for though because every bird that I have photographed from this hide and in this tree previously has been absolutely wonderful. There are still Peregrines in the territory and I have seen them on avery trip recently but in spite of a lot of patience, not on the Oak Tree. However, it's no hardship sitting comfortably in the hide listening to the woodland birds half listening to the radio (with headphones) and all the while hoping and half expecting an amazing bird to land right there in the perfect spot.
Just a bit about this image, beautiful with the different light.
Now to Stock Dove. I was sat in the hide last week waiting for the Kestrels and hopefully, one of the resident Peregrines when suddenly a pigeon landed right where the birds of prey like to land. I was expecting it to be a Wood Pigeon because I have seen them there several times but I was wrong and what a lovely surprise when I realised that it was a Stock Dove. This is a bird that I have only seen - with certainty - a few times in Devon and a couple of times in Yorkshire. This is a reasonably rare(ish) resident Devon bird that is probably under recorded though and perhaps more common than realised but in the UK, the population is thought to be around 260,000 compared to nearly 6 million Wood Pigeons so you can see, they are not common at all. It is to my eyes a pretty soft gentle looking bird with a a very distinctive colourful patch on the neck and a distinctive dark incomplete wing bar. Once you have seen a Stock Dove you will not confuse the species for the obviously very similar feral pigeon that are related to Rock Doves. That species has a white rump whereas the Stock Dove has a grey rump. Unusually the Stock Dove is a hole nesting birds that likes to use old oak trees apparently. That is unusual and it can't be that easy to find enough nest holes and for that reason they will use a nest box. I read somewhere that nest boxes put up for owls are regularly taken over by these pigeons. Half of the European population is found in the UK but like I have already alluded, while not being particularly rare, they are often overlooked. I have been back to my hide twice since I took these photographs and I have not had another visit which probably reinforces how lucky I was.
I recently took some photographs of a Kestrel on the same perch and from the same position that I had photographed Peregrines previously. I compared the images to get a good idea of the size differences between different species and more dramatically, the difference in size between adult Peregrines. I have to confess to being staggered at the difference between the female and male Peregrines. To get a good accurate idea of the sizes you need to check the branch which in all pictures is the same size.
A few weeks ago I became aware of a pair of Kestrels that were showing interest in a nest ledge at the site of the Peregrine Falcons that I am licensed to photograph. It is almost a week since I visited the site and even on my 2 previous visits I had seen the Kestrels and I imagined that they had decided not to breed at this site. Perhaps the male is too young? I visited the site today hoping to photograph the Peregrines from a hide that is set up next to an old oak tree. I settled down for what I expected to be the usual wait and to help pass the time I started to read from my iPad. Suddenly I heard the Kestrels who were calling very loudly and were very close. Before I knew it there was the male on the perch in front of me. I was caught off guard and I failed to get a shot before it flew off, still calling and obviously down on the nest ledge. i was disappointed not to have managed at least one shot because for several weeks I had imagined that any shot from this hide and on that perch would be quite a good one. Then just before I had chance to feel too disappointed, there it was again, or so I thought, but this time it was the female. I took loads of photos and had chance to have a really good close look at it before it flew off as well but it had been there for at least 5 minutes. As if that wasn't enough suddenly there was the male and he stayed for quite a while and I not only took some great photos I could also study him really well.
Both pictures above show the female which was slightly larger than the male and the most obvious differences was the brown tail banded with dark bands in the female and a grey blue tail in the male, banded with dark bands. These bands are absent in males that are 2 years old or more. In addition to the colour of the tail the back of the male is also much richer brown - in fact almost brick red. I think that if the bird (below) were older then the moustache strike would be bolder and more defined as it is in the female above. Look at the beak of the male below, on the upper bill you can see the tomial tooth which is a feature of falcons and also very noticeable in Peregrines.
I spent a few hours today looking to take photographs of Tree Pipits at a spot near Mortonhampstead close to Dartmoor. Checking my galleries I can see that I have been there in this calendar week over the last few years. The Tree Pipits can be hard to separate from the Meadow Pipits but once you see them in their very distinctive parachuting display flights, they are unmistakeable. If you compare pictures of known Tree Pipits with Meadows one or two things become obvious. The hind claw on the Meadow Pipit is noticeably longer, in fact it usually looks almost too long. The hind claw of a Tree Pipit is a more balanced length. Then , look at the flank markings, this of a Tree Pipit are much finer unlike the Meadow which are usually very much bigger. Then, but I think this is less obvious, the beak of the Tree Pipit is heavier. But even after looking at all of those diagnostic features you may still get it wrong. However like I have already alluded to, the song and display of the Tree Pipit will always clinch it.
The bird above and below is a Meadow Pipit, note the flanks heavily barred right down to the legs. I have also noticed that the legs of Tree Pipits are more flesh coloured. I was quite sure that the bird below was a Tree pipit but on closer inspection, the claws are far too long and indicate that this is a Meadow Pipit.
Now here's a couple of photo's of a Tree Pipit (below). It does show the difference on the flanks but I didn't mange to get the great shot that I wanted but I am going back tomorrow and I may be more successful then.
At the site where I am licensed to photograph Peregrines I have, this last two weeks or so been joined by a pair of Kestrels. Yesterday their breeding activities were really ramped up with both birds on the their chosen nest ledge - an old discussed Raven's nest. I watched the female shaping a scrape with her body, in much the same way as the peregrines do and then I observed the male displaying to his mate on the ledge. Then both birds were in an adjacent tree and I was hoping that they would copulate. I have been informed that there will be no conflict between the resident Peregrines but this will be an interesting liaison. The male Kestrel is a feisty bird and I have seen him on several occasions mobbing, or flying at the female Peregrine. He may have a death wish! It will be fascinating if both nests are successful, can you imagine if there are juvenile Kestrels and juvenile Peregrines in the territory together? Well, in fact I am informed by raptor experts that this will not be unusual and there are records of Peregrin adults actually feeding juvenile Kestrels in confusion. Instinct is a great thing and I doubt that the Peregrines can resist the begging calls of the closely related falcon species. Unfortunately the distance from my hide to the nest ledge is quite a big one so the photos are the best I can do. This is the female Kestrel flying from the ledge
Then we have the male and female on the ledge, male in the front he is a young bird and still has a barred tail.
In this one they are displaying to each other, when they do this they call loudly and also continue calling in flight.
In this one the female is on the left. The male has a very peculiar display dance where he bends his knees and bobs up and down.
I am a Schedule 1 licence holder for the territory of this bird.
It would be hard for me to convey in to words how utterly rewarding and exhilarating this photograph is for me. I am very obsessive when it comes to bird photography and I like to make a plan and see it through to get the photo that I have seen in my mind's eye, sometimes for months in advance. This photo was taken from a hide that I built last year overlooking an old oak tree that I know the Peregrines like to visit from time to time. By no means is this a daily occurrence but I reasoned that if I put enough time in then eventually I would get lucky. I have photographed the Tercel from this hide last year and also newly fledged juveniles but I hadn't been lucky enough to photograph the falcon posing nicely.... until today that is. But it has been a very patient 9 hours this last two days! When the opportunity presented itself I had one chance and one chance only. I had been in the hide for a couple of hours and had seen the falcon briefly flying around just now and again and beneath me. I was sat very quietly with my head resting comfortably against the cam netting, I was almost "nodding off" when without any warning or noise, I saw her appear. The camera was already focused right on the branch and almost perfectly in the right place. I immediately pressed the shutter, the bird heard the shutter noise and in the time it's taken for you to read this sentence, she had come and gone. The body and talons are in focus but a slight move of the head just as the shutter was fired makes that part of the photograph slightly soft. If I had been able to take two or three shots I may have had one or two to choose from but never the less it was brilliant to see the falcon so close and to get the photograph. I was really relieved when I saw it because with my 500 lens I managed to get the entire bird in the frame. I guess thats wht you call a frame filling shot!
This is the female Peregrine known as a "falcon".
This last few days have been interesting at my Peregrine Falcon Site - I am licensed by Natural England to photograph there - but what has been disappointing is the apparent failure of the peregrine nest, however the presence of a breeding pair of Kestrels has been brilliant to watch. Yesterday I watched both male and female interacting and taking part in courtship, both in the air and on the rock face. I have to confess that I haven't really taken enough notice of Kestrels before, or rather I should say that I haven't had the opportunity to study them before. Therefore, if they do go on to breed here and I am almost certain that they will, it is going to be very interesting. The other day I had witnessed displaying by one of the pair with a lizard and I had assumed this to be the male bird and when I first saw this bird yesterday I thought it was the female again. But as soon as I saw both birds together it was obvious which was which. Oddly the male has a heavily barred tail, he must be a second year bird and still retaining some of the juvenile feathering as both male and female juveniles have barred tails. So that was something that I have learned about this species already. When they were courting, the male literally flew in at the female, in a play attack and she turned upside down and showed her talons to him to defend herself. I have read about this "play fighting" during courtship. Then they took to the air and very acrobatically swooped around like fighter planes in a dog fight.
This is the male and you can clearly see that it has a barred tail and not solid grey, a sure indication of it's age. In the picture below, the female has a totally different tail and is more evenly brown all over.
The photos are from a distance and its hard to get a good image from the distances involved. Below is the male perched on the rock face and its good to be able to compare the plumage of the two birds.
(A difficult shot from quite a distance.)
I witnessed something really interesting today. I had sat in the hide for an hour or so, hoping to see the Peregrines continuing their breeding activity but at the moment that seems to be a little bit uncertain - to say the least. Then I heard the excited calling of a Kestrel, these last few visits I have seen them on an old Ravens nest and I am sure they are going to breed, or attempt to breed there. I immediately managed to get my camera on to the ledge there. I was pretty sure that it was going to be the male - I have seen both sexes there recently - but no, it was the female. It was carrying a lizard in its beak and it was bobbing up and down, calling loudly. Odd that it had flown to the nest ledge with prey because I would have expected the male to be displaying and delivering prey. It's always massively difficult to anticipate behaviour as usual. What was just as interesting was that prior to the noisy excitement from the Kestrels, I hadn't seen a Peregrine but it seemed that the presence of the smaller falcon had attracted it's attention and it then flew in to the nest ledge. It stood there motionless and the word forlorn crossed my mind. There is still no sign of the tercel and I haven't seen him since last Wednesday which is probably why there seems to be a halt in breeding activity. A big disappointment frankly.
In this part of the world Marsh Tits are one of the rarer species of tit, therefore it's always good when I see one. At my peregrine falcon nestsite I have been putting out a feeder in front of the hide just to make it a bit more interesting when there's not a lot going on. So far I've had some nice birds come to the feeder. There has been blue tits, great tits, great - spotted woodpeckers of both sexes, but so far no nuthatch which is a surprise. But yesterday I was really pleased when a pair of Marsh Tits came to the feeder. As well as being one of the less common tit species in the UK it's also one of the least colourful but nevertheless still very attractive. There are thought to be only around 40,000 breeding pairs of marsh tits in the country and an estimated 3 to 4,000,000 breeding pairs of blue tits. So you can see that your chances of seeing a Marsh Tit is quite slim compared to the much more common blue and great tits, in fact for every 100 blue tits there is a marsh tit! This picture was taken with my 300 lens and is not cropped, the bird being just 3 feet in front of me from inside the hide.
I have a Schedule 1 Licence to Photograph Kingfishers at the nest.
This is a photograph from 2013.
jI've ust been out looking for kingfishers or should I say trying to find their nest and its been a disappointment. I was there for about two hours without any success which is a bit of a frustration really. I searched the bank for a likely looking hole but I couldn't find one even though I was checking very carefully where they had nested successfully last year. There are a few other areas where I suspect they may be nesting and I'm hoping to go and check that out later on today. It's always very frustrating at this time of the year, trying to find a kingfishers nest is hard but well worth it because when you find one it's extremely interesting and the photo opportunities are great. Of course I have a schedule one license to photograph kingfishers at the nest and I am fully conversant with the law and how it applies to photography and kingfishers at their nest territory. The best way to discover a nest is to look for adult birds carrying fish back to their nest. When they are feeding their young they will carry their prey tail first and this is a sure sign that they are feeding youngsters somewhere, then it is just a matter of following them and hopefully pinning down where their nest hole is. But do not do this if you are not licensed for you will be breaking the law. I would not consider myself an expert on the kingfisher but in previous years I have learnt so much about this beautiful species. For example the other evening I was sat by the river looking at a likely nesting site when a couple stopped and spoke to me. They asked what I was looking for, as I had binoculars and was wearing a camouflage jacket. I told them that I was looking for kingfishers but I explained about the law and how this affects people who want to photograph at a nestsite. They then told me that they hadn't even seen a kingfisher previously when suddenly one flew right passed in front of us: they would not have seen it if I hadn't been aware of the call. It flew away down river strongly, they are very fast flyers and they have a large territory this is one of the reasons that is difficult to find their nest. Then after 10 minutes or so it came back in the other direction so I quickly followed it and then I had a really really close up encounter with it as it perched on a branch above the bank right where they had nested in previous years. It seems though that this was just coincidental as I am pretty certain they are not a nesting in that vicinity this year. Kingfishers will have two or three rounds of nests and my records indicate that I found some newly fledged youngsters on May 1 a couple of years ago. I would imagine, using that as an example, that there are Kingfisher nests with quite large chicks at the moment so this is a good time for me to be looking for adults carrying fish prey.
It seems as though the tercel has gone AWOL now and he has’t been seen since the 8th April - 4 days ago. I saw the falcon almost constantly today - I was there for 6 hours - and she spent the majority of time calling and apparently searching for her mate. It is not unusual for the tercel to keep a low profile and I would expect him to put in an appearance very soon. I am confident that the falcon will produce another clutch of eggs but it will be dependent on the tercel’s part in proceedings. I witnessed some very surprising behavior however. The Kestrels were there again and at one point, with the falcon in the adjoining oak, the male Kestrel came in to mob her. It then landed next to the falcon and they both remained in the tree, next to each other for 20 minutes. Eventually the Kestrel flew off and the falcon flew back down on to her nest ledge. Later, the Kestrel flew on to the Raven’s nest and noisily displayed before gliding off.
Please note: I have a Schedule 1Licence to photograph at this Peregrine nest site.
The latest development is not a good one but it's nature in the raw. Having been away for the Easter weekend, I returned to the nest territory at the first opportunity, full of anticipation and without any doubt that the falcon would be sitting her clutch of eggs. It was a shock when I peered on to the ledge to see it vacant with no sign of a Peregrine. I studied the nest scrape and could see no sign of eggs either. I waited and waited but still no bird came to the ledge but after a while I did see both birds who flew from beneath me. At this point it became obvious that there was something seriously wrong and the eggs had probably been predated, the only conclusion that I could come to. I remained in the hide for more than 3 hours though, needing to study the behaviour of the adults. Eventually the falcon came in but avoided the nest ledge. She flew from a spot where she had just been feeding, her crop was bulging with the meal and I watched her wipe her beak on the branch that she was perched on. Having noticed last week that she was really quiet, almost secretive, now she was noisy, again and calling for her mate and also using the breeding call. My one and only hope is that she will go on to produce another clutch of eggs but if she does, will these also be predated? I can only guess as to the culprit but my money would be on the Ravens that I have seen and heard constantly this year. The falcon made no attempt to fly to the nest ledge but instead flew from her tree perch on to a favourite rock on the quarry face where I have photographed her before. Both were perched regularly there at the beginning of March.
I visited again yesterday and it was probably one of the most interesting of the season so far. It wasn’t all about Peregrines though. When I arrived I was pleased to see the falcon standing on the nest ledge, this is a sure indication that she is going to try again and lay another clutch of eggs. However after just a few minutes she flew out of the quarry and out of sight. Then a bird arrived and without me getting a proper view, landed on an old Raven’s nest to the left, but not far from the normal breeding ledge. I trained my optics there and I was surprised to see, not a Peregrine but a female Kestrel. She was clucking in breeding display and bobbing up and down excitedly, surely a sure sign that she is interested in breeding here. Kestrels are known to not only choose a rock ledge as a nest site but they also like to use disused corvids nest so this would normally constitute a perfect nest site. But so close to the Peregrines nest ledge, surely there is bound to be conflict. After flying from the ledge it perched in the nearby oak tree and remained there for an hour or so, even having the audacity to use the Peregrine’s favourite perch. Later, after well over an hour, I heard the clucking call of a Peregrine and the female flew in. The Kestrel, even though well aware of the much larger bird of prey, hardly reacted. With the Peregrine now on the nest ledge, I had the pleasure of having two magnificent falcon species in front of me. The Peregrine worked on her nest and the Kestrel then flew on to her chosen ledge and began to display and call in a very animated way. This is all very interesting and I look forward with a lot of anticipation to discovering the outcome of this alliance. Will they tolerate each other?
There was some excitement when I got to the Peregrine territory yesterday morning but first there was massive deflation because, as I opened the flap of the hide and peered on to the nest ledge, hoping beyond hope that there was going to be a sitting peregrine - there was nothing. I think we are getting to the stage when eggs need to be produced very soon if breeding is going to take place this year and with this falcon being only in her second spring I am beginning to accept that she is too young. Then suddenly, there was a bird of prey, but brown - it was a female Kestrel and it was just above the nest ledge! Perhaps looking for a nest site itself? Would the peregrines accept that, I doubt it? Then as if to confirm my opinion, there was a peregrine, it was the falcon. She had flown in to protect her territory. I fully expected conflict of some sort but she just went on to her nest scrape, did a bit of scratching around, sat still for a minute or two on the nest and then left. Meanwhile, the Kestrel flew back in front of the ledge as if to mob the Peregrine. All very interesting. Then the nest ledge was vacant again? Then the real excitement - there is an egg! With the nest vacant, I used all my optics stacked one on toop of the other. This gives me massive magnification, hardly good enough to publish as a photo but, then using the zoom on the live view of the camera, I could just make out a portion of colour where a tiny fraction of an egg was visible. This is great news and within the space of just a few minutes I went from deflation to elation! But now, as if to make observations really worthwhile, the falcon is away from the ledge and not guarding the precious object at all. If I hadn't seen the egg I would have almost certainly given up the idea of success this year. As was proved when the Kestrel turned up, I can only assume that she is watching carefully from afar.
It was a massive surprise when I got to the hide yesterday, there was no falcon on the ledge and I was sure there was going to be. Trying to work out what was going on is becoming a big frustration, a quandary and a real test of patience. It was at least a week ago that I suspected that there could be eggs in the nest, then as the week has gone on I have been forced into changing my opinion. All I can say is that there is breeding activity on the nest ledge and the falcon wouldn't be there - almost constantly - if she isn’t interested in breeding but quite what the state of play is now, well I am mystified. Two weeks ago the birds were very vociferous with much calling back and forth but now, apart from some clucking calls when the falcon arrives at the nest, they are almost silent.
As well as this, the tiercel's part in proceedings has been reduced to a bit part and he is seen and heard nowhere near as often as he was two weeks - or even a week ago. When the falcon was incubating last year, the tiercel also behaved in this way so I am interpreting his behaviour as positive. The falcon did come to the nest ledge after I had been there 20 minutes though and then she left 35 minutes later, probably to go off to hunt I thought. During her time on the ledge she sat loosely in the nest scrape for a while and then stood next to it for the remainder and like I have said, no tiercel to be seen. As I wrote this yesterday, the falcon - who had returned after a short while - stood motionless by the nest scrape, which is what she did for 9 hours the day before, I guess there must be a reason she is standing there!
At my Peregrine hide I have set up a little feeder so that when I am sitting waiting for action at the nest ledge and things are a little quiet I have got something to keep me interested. it's been good fun and I have started to get some interesting birds coming in. These have included Great-spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and the other usual tit species. Considering that the feeder is less than 3 feet from me when I am in the hide, it was great to have the woodpecker there yesterday. They are still common at the hide area inspite of the Peregrines predating at least - to my knowledge that is - 15 last year. This is a very attractive, some would see exotic species and the wings in flight are particularly striking. You can see how a Peregrine would have very little trouble sighting this species in flight and I would suggest that evolution has dealt a bad hand to the Great-spotted Woodpecker. This is a male by the way. Females have no red on the head and oddly, juveniles are more coloured than both their parents with red on the front of the head.
This is another one of those species that we think of as British but they are widespread across Europe and Asia. They have become more common in the UK in the last 25 years and I have even had the privilege of one on my garden feeder. They are a nuisance in the breeding season because they will break in to the nest boxes of small tits and flycatchers and eat the chicks or eggs, not a very endearing habit. They love peanuts and this is why they can be attracted to the garden and feeders particularly, hence this one feeding from my "hide" feeder. I hope to get more...... many more photos of this species in flight.
I came across this male Chaffinch this morning that was acting in an interesting but perhaps a bit of a stupid way. It had seen it's own image in the wing mirror of a parked car and decided that his reflection was in fact competition for his territory, a sure sign that spring is on the way - well it's almost here already. It was repeatedly banging itself in to the mirror and never cottoned on at all for the 5 minutes I watched it. Quite fascinating really. Its a good time of year to photograph Chaffinch as they are in high breeding condition and look the best that are going to look. I know that some photographers in other countries use carved small bird decoys to attract birds to photograph and I have often thought about doing this and I think that this proves that it would work extremely well although you wouldn't want to do it too much or for too long as it would probably interfere with natural breeding behaviour of the birds that reacted to it.
The tiercel flies fro the nest ledge leaving the falcon to sit on the nest scrape.
I commented that yesterday was the best session of the season so far but that paled in to insignificance compared to today. It seems that incubation has started, the female has started to brood a clutch of eggs. When I arrived at the hide in the early afternoon, at first there was no birds present on the ledge but within minutes the falcon flew in and sat quietly in the scrape. She remained there, sitting on the nest for around 2 hours 30 minutes when suddenly the tiercel landed next to her, he stayed for a minute or so and then flew off and landed on an unusual perch - a dead gorse stump - to the right of the ledge. He remained their posing beautifully for a further 5 minutes or so, all the while screaming loudly. The falcon meanwhile had left the nest and the ledge was quiet for a minute or two, but not for long. The Tiercel was first back but he just landed there and didn't go in to the nest scrape. Then with much screaming, the falcon returned, the tiercel left and then she quickly made her way back on to the nest scrape where she remained, sitting as before. She was still there when I left at 1730. If she is not started incubation then she is very broody and I suspect that either there is a full clutch or she will lay imminently.
The Tiercel perched on a dead gorse.
It had been 4 days since I last saw the tiercel and I had started to think that something was wrong, but I have been at the hide later in the afternoons this week , was this the reason I hadn't seen him? I came to the hide even later today, almost as an afterthought and I am glad I did because it was my best session of the season so far. I witnessed some totally new behaviour - for me that is -from the falcon. She suddenly arrived on the rock face opposite and I knew immediately that she was doing something a bit different. I saw her make her way to a cleft in the rock and then retrieve a stashed kill which she immediately started to eat but only for a minute or so before she flew off with it to consume elsewhere. I know that Peregrines stash uneaten prey but this was exciting to observe for myself. I have seen a peregrine stashing prey before but this is the first time I have witnessed the stash being utilised. With it starting to dim, as afternoon turned to evening, suddenly I heard calling which I haven't heard so much these last few visits, then suddenly, on the ledge, with the tiercel arriving first were both birds. They were both calling the scream call and they bowed and nodded to each other before the tiercel flew off leaving the falcon on the ledge alone, calling to him plaintively. After no response she went in to the nest hollow and carried on calling. She started to brood either an imaginary clutch of eggs or otherwise, but going through the motions nevertheless. Well what an outcome. At first today I was thinking all sorts of negatives and by the end of the session it turned out to be as positive as it could possibly be!
When I departed the Peregrine nest site on Saturday I had left the falcon sat quietly on the nest as if brooding even though I was confident that she hadn't laid yet. I suppose you could describe that as being broody. She had been on the nests for so long that iit did leave me guessing though. I knew that after my visit today I would have a much better idea and I half expected her to be on the nest when I arrived. But, as is normal with birds, quite often it's hard to second guess. Even as I unzipped the hide I could hear a calling bird and I was anxious to see if she was on the nest ledge. Surprisingly, the answer was no! The distant bird kept calling quite excitedly and then there was the "clucking call" so I suspected that there were now two. I settled down to write this on my iPad and I had only written the first sentence when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bird fly to the nest ledge - it was the falcon. After the usual caution, she went on to the nest scrape and then carried out what could only be described as gardening, even using her beak to move some offending small pieces of either rock or bits of soil. So, there you have it, I don't think we have eggs yet. This is my 14th visit to the nest so far since the beginning of March and a total of more than 47 hours, many more to come, we haven't even got an egg yet!
I observed and recorded some very interesting and for me, new behaviour today, but it still required a massive amount of patience.
The tiercel on the nest ledge, almost identical to the photo I took 11 days ago. Compare it to the falcon below.
There was silence for almost an hour after I got there this morning but eventually from nearby, there was almost constant calling that went on for 15 minutes or more. I knew that the one bird had been joined by the other, I could hear two now. Almost immediately, I heard the "clucking" call. Then it was also obvious that they had taken to the air because I heard their clucking from various places above and around me. I caught sight of them in arial courtship, a magnificent spectacle and the first time that I had witnessed it. They were soaring and interacting at a great height and speed, unfortunately I quickly lost sight of them because they were moving so quickly. Then a while later, I knew that they were nearby again, I could hear them "clucking" away and interacting. The tiercel was first to visit the ledge at 1308. It had seemed like a long wait in the cold windy conditions but it was really worth it because he is such a marvellous looking bird. Oddly, he perched in exactly the same spot that I have seen him before. He stayed for a few minutes and then flew off strongly. Then at 1322 the falcon arrived. I wasn’t surprised, I was expecting her, but what did surprise me was that she remained in that position for well over 10 minutes, acting very cautiously and remaining motionless. This was a great opportunity to study her carefully. She is slate blue on the back and I could see that every flight and wing feather was perfect. Each wing covert is barred and edged with a subtle lighter grey. On the back there are a few feathers here and there that are not as blue as others instead they are brownish. Eventually she moved in to the hollow and did some digging with her talons. Then after circling around the hollow for a minute or so, she sat quietly in the nest as if incubating. She remained there for at least 30 minutes and was still there on the nest when I left. Is there an egg?
Today has been little different than the last 10 days or so. The birds were sitting somewhere away from the nest ledge when I arrived and there was calling now and then. After quite a while I knew that there was something about to happen because I heard some interaction with lots of clucking which started to rise in intensity and then to a crescendo. I suspected that mating was perhaps taking place. I anticipated that the falcon would come to the ledge and I was absolutely correct because she flew in right on cue. Her clucking had continued as she flew and then on the ledge she carried it on for a short while. I timed her precisely and she was cautious for 2 minutes exactly, remaining motionless apart from seeming to scan the area to check for safety before she made her way in to the nest scrape and instinctively started to hollow out her nest hollow. She remained on the ledge for getting on for 9 minutes before flying off again. After it was quiet I left the hide carefully and under cover and cautiously went to a few spots higher up with views of the scrape. I was hoping to see if I could see any eggs in the nest but I couldn't get in to a vantage point that gave me a clear view. Once eggs are laid it is going to be interesting to see if the birds sit nearer to the ledge, or on the ledge to guard them. With many Ravens in the territory, I would suspect this to be the case.
The "falcon" on the nest scrape.
The weather was still un-springlike today, cold, misty and overcast. But if the peregrines are to lay around the spring solstice - in 7 days - then surely there will be some interesting behaviour at the nest territory this week. I arrived at the hide at around midday. There were no peregrines on the ledge, nor anywhere else nearby as far as I knew but after 30 minutes or so, I heard my first bird of the day. I was very pleased to see fresh guano on the ledge, a sure indication that the birds had spent time there recently and I was confident that I could see fresh earth where the nest scrape had been worked. It seems that the birds are spending their resting time well away from the ledge and in the woodland opposite. I hear them calling from there frequently. I am now quite confident that they will nest on the ledge that they have used in the previous 4 years, but it would be nice to see them on the nest more often.
After an hour in to my session, both birds suddenly arrived on the ledge but their behaviour was interesting. The falcon immediately flew off, leaving the tercel on his own who went into the hollowed scrape but didn't stay long either. There is the constant croaking of Ravens nearby and I suspect they are building a nest in the trees opposite. It's interesting to note that the peregrines are oblivious to the activities of the Ravens, displaying a total indifference to their presence. Buzzards are also very evident and their calls are regular and close by.
Just a reminder, I am licensed by Natural England to photograph at the nest territory of this Schedule 1 species.
At the Peregrine nest yesterday it was a very quiet session although I did have the male (tercel) in front of me for most of it. I heard him call but in the dank conditions I couldn't see him at first but I knew he was there somewhere. After a few minutes, I located him sitting quietly on the old oak in one of the favourite perches where I have seen both birds on numerous occasions over the last 3 years. Oddly, this is the the first time I have seen them there this year though. It sat there for more than 2 hours just doing nothing, but it seemed quite alert, as though he was keeping watch. I have a another little hide that would have given me great views in front of that tree but I would not have been able to get in to it without disturbance, particularly when he was so alert. My camera is working remarkably well this year so I am quiet content with the shots I took of him. Yesterday I had seen that he thad a blood soaked talon and he has today as well. Also, note the bulging breast, this is an indication that he has recently fed, the bulge is food in the crop. I really love this pretty little Tercel, I have seen him for 4 years running and feel I know him well. He is a lazy bird who does not waste any energy and seems to spend lots of his time just sitting around. In fact, Peregrines do sit resting for hours on end. This will be because of the food they eat. Once fed, they then need to allow it to pass through from the crop and in to the stomach and then of course, this needs to digest. A long process compared with other birds who have a fast digestive transit and need to feed often. The food they eat dictates their behaviour, hence birds of prey, particularly Peregrines do not need to search for food constantly and consequently this dictates their seemingly lazy behaviour. Sitting on one leg like he is in the picture above is a sure sign that he is at rest and relaxed.
Tercel on the nest ledge. For those interested in photograph..... taken with a 500 lens with 2 stacked 1.4 converters to get in close. Mirror up on the camera, a small image which helps to eliminate noise and remote shutter release to ensure that the there is absolutely no movement. (Note the blood on the talon?) Distance at least 75 metres. The more I look at this image the more I like it!
(My note from the hide yesterday.)
Its early March but spring is on the way and nesting activity is already taking place particularly the early nesters such as Dipper and of course the Peregrines that I have a Schedule 1 License to photograph. Here is the details from yesterday's exciting session. (On MondayI had seen the Falcon (female that is) on last years nest ledge which was really good.)
(My notes from the hide yesterday.) "When I arrived it was overcast and damp, unlike yesterday when the conditions had been bright and sunny. It was going to be interesting to see if yesterday’s spring-like weather had induced interest in breeding and if today's dullness would literally dampen their ardour. On arrival there was no sight or sound of peregrines. Therefore, I was a little surprised when, after 15 minutes or so, I heard a peregrine using the "clucking call." The clucking call is associated with breeding activity and I have heard it regularly this year. I suspected that the falcon was about to arrive but I was wrong. There, on the ledge was the tercel! It stayed for no more than two minutes but remained silent, you can see how he behaved in the video. After it had flown off I could hear it calling in the woodland opposite with the usual "scream" call. This was an interesting couple of minutes because it proved that both sexes use this call. The video shows that a short while later, the falcon arrived on the ledge. After being extremely cautious for several minutes, she walked on to the nest and began to form the nest hollow using her feet to scratch out the earth and then her body to form the shape."