First of all, a very "Happy Christmas" to everyone where ever you are in the world. I hope you have a peaceful 2011 and that you continue to enjoy and care about your environment as much as I do. My garden has been alive with birds this last week and very soon, the object of every birds desires.... the cotoneaster berries..... will run out and then who knows what the redwings are going to eat. The berries have been feeding not only Redwings but Blackcaps, Fieldfares, Song Thrush and even a Robin enjoying the feast.
When the snow came I expected it be a "one day wonder", but no, it's remained for days and to be honest, I have really enjoyed the change of conditions. The birds are having to work really hard to feed and are probably a bit more approachable than under normal conditions. For example, Redwings and Thrushes are stripping the berry trees bare and I wonder what will happen when that food source runs out, lots of fatalities I would imagine? When the frost really kicked in, I was concerned for my Kingfisher, if the brook were to freeze over completely, then how would she fish. It is known that bad frosts really take their toll on Kingfishers and I was therefore very relieved this morning when I went to look for her because I saw her fly up and down the brook. Later, I took my pop-up hide and set it up to watch for her. At first, the birds I saw were really interesting and I photographed this Reed Bunting working along the frozen edges of the brook, the first time I have seen this species by my hide area. I think this bird was doing OK because I actually saw her with a spider in her beak so it was having some measure of success.
The usual Grey Wagtail was working very hard and must have been finding something to keep it going. What was interesting was to see Redwings coming down to the brook to drink which again bears witness to the idea that the brook is a very important resource for the wildlife in the area.
After a while, waiting for the Kingfisher to show started to wear a bit thin, I was getting cold so I decided to end my morning session and stood to dismantle the chair hide. At that moment a Kingfisher flew past me just feet away and before I could register it in my mind it flew past again in the opposite direction, followed by another giving chase. The first one must have been a wandering bird encroaching on the resident female's territory and she was having none of it! It was like watching a fighter plane being pursued on it's tail by the enemy. Later on in the afternoon, I returned to see if I could get that Kingfisher shot but as I arrived at the hide area the KIngfisher was disturbed from her perch very close to the hide and she didn't return except to fly back towards me and then up stream. I found something very interesting in the snow later on, a Kingfisher's regurgitated pellet! I have seen Kingfishers 'coughing" up these pellets on several occasions and been intrigued but when I had tried to find them under the perch they had disintegrated in the water. However, what had happened in this instance was that the pellet had frozen solid in the snow and remained that way until I picked it up. It is around the size of a brazil nut but the colour of dried grass.It is made up entirely of small fish bones and scales and now that it has completely thawed out, is disintegrating at even the lightest touch.
In the garden, the Blackcaps....... both male and female are still with us as well as lots of Blackbirds, Redwings and a single Song Thrush. We had at least 2 Long Tailed Tits, the first to come in to the garden this winter. Another bird of note was a male Chaffinch but no Goldfinches which is completely different to previous years. Goldfinches are not as common this year and I don't know why. A real spectacle was a Buzzard being mobbed by dozens of gulls and 4 crows who decided that enough was enough and perched on the roof of the house opposite. Before I could grab my camera it had gone. Must be struggling to find food if it's thinking of gardens to scavenge in.
My enjoyment of winter wildlife continues, a nice bonus to have so many exciting and interesting things to do at this time of the year. Yesterday's smew pictures were OK but with better light and patience, I knew I would do better. Patience and Perseverance Pay off! The three P's!
The day arrived with snow still inches deep and driving conditions hard on the minor roads, particularly outside my house. I dragged myself away from the Blackcaps and Redwings in the garden and went back to the canal to put my three "p's" in to practice. I arrived on the canal side car park, still the only one to have braved it............ and it was good to be on my own to be frank. I scanned the frozen canal, but more specifically the unfrozen pool to see what it contained, no Smew here but lots of coot. It really was a strange, silent experience walking along the icy canal in the snow. The first thing that I noticed was lots of tracks across the ice,............ otters! This was confirmed when I found a lovely patch of green snow which turned out to be spraint, confirmed by that characteristic smell. Knowing otters like I now do, made me wonder how many people would be missing these very obvious signs. This is probably the best time to be finding otter tracks and spraint, so obvious right now what with the green snow and really noticeable tracks which normally would take a bit of spotting.
At the second pool there was a hundred or so ducks including Gadwall and Tufted Duck as well as dozens of Coot. Amongst them was a single Smew! Unfortunately, just at that moment I was joined by a walker and this was just too much for the Smew and it left promptly! I stood chatting to my new friend, and we shared life stories and obviously the Smew wasn't coming back. Eventually he left, and the Smew came back almost immediately. If you ever needed a lesson in being quiet and still, then this is it. I took a considerable amount of pictures in the hope that I could get at least one or two good ones, but more importantly, I was able to study behaviour and feeding habits. I watched it diving and then eventually, pandemonium broke out as the Smew surfaced with a big fat perch. It scurried across the water, chased by an entourage of beggars.
A couple of times it emerged from the water on to the ice and gave me a good show but it quickly returned to the water. My 300m lens was only just good enough, it's a funny thing the way that birds just seem to stay just that too far from the lens you have fitted, or is it Murphy's law!
Today we have something completely different for the Blog.It never ceases to amaze me that I can be constantly entertained and thrilled by the bird visitors that I am able to see around my home city of Exeter. Today was a great one because I was able to photograph two new species for my galleries. Gadwall are supposed to be drab......... yes they are not particularly brightly coloured but when you see them reasonably close up their seemingly grey plumage is made up of gorgeous little striped markings....... but enough of Gadwall for a minute or two, lets talk Smew!
I went for a walk along the canal to look for otter signs in the snow and ice and there was several clear paths crossing the canal that had been made be these fascinating mammals that are getting increasingly common here around the city and just beyond. It's bitterly cold here and the Exeter Ship Canal is mainly frozen but there are a couple of places where the ice is yet to completely cover, these "pools" are full of waterfowl. Mainly Coot but a few Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler and the odd Mallard. I could not believe my eyes when I noticed a couple of small very pretty brown headed ducks amongst a large flock of Coot, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and the odd Swan. These were two Smew. Quite a rare bird for Devon. I took a few photos and watched them for a while and they eventually left the flock when a walker with a dog came down the Tow Path, how typical is that. As they flew off I managed a few flight shots and here is the best one.
This picture below shows the second Smew of the two with a Gadwall. This one has a totally different shape to the head..... perhaps a female? After a bit more research I read that they are easily disturbed and take flight quickly which will explain why they took off when disturbed by the walker, but the Gadwall remained. I also read that they nest in woodpecker holes and less than 400 over-winter here in the UK so a nice bird to see.
I have to say that I am very pleased with today's photographic efforts. I am lucky, living in Devon as I do, to have several Blackcaps in the garden, over-wintering from the Continent. Although I have managed a few good shots this winter, so far that really good shot has eluded me. Backgrounds are an important aspect, or feature of any picture, and particularly if you are capturing bird portraits it's very important to make sure that the background of your picture does not detract from the subject. Taking my lead from some great photographs of Hummingbirds from the USA that I had seen, I decided to take control of the backgrounds and 'mock-up" a nice bright neutral back drop to compliment my pictures. Using some artists pastels I designed a nice artistic backdrop to not only compliment the subject, but also to reflect the light. I placed the coloured back-drop several feet behind where I expected a Blackcap to come in and feed, and waited to see what happened. To my utter surprise and amazement, the presence of a large piece of coloured art board clamped to a bush had no effect on the feeding Blackcap whatsoever. However, the bird with us at the moment has been a bit shy and any slight movement of lens or camera from the hide, or even noise from the shutter, sent her scurrying back in to the shrubbery. Eventually after more than two weeks of effort and perseverance it all came together. I saw her feeding at around lunch time today and quickly went out to my hide with the camera. After just a short while a Blue Tit came in to feed off the apple and then as I was looking at the photos taken to check I had the correct settings, suddenly there she was in front of me and showing perfectly. This had taken so long to come together, I was thrilled to know that at last I had got some pictures that I knew were going to be good. The sky is the limit really. There is going to be an infinite variety of backdrops and for-grounds for that matter. It is simply a case of changing the props and waiting for the birds to come in to feed. When the light is better I will be bale to make sure I have some good depth of field in my images which isn't quite the case today but that's the next thing to correct.
If you read my blog entry for this morning you will know that I had planned to go back to the brook this afternoon and see if I could photograph "my' Kingfisher female last photographed by me on 28th October. With the brook very high and muddy to say the least over the last 51 days, well who knows how the Kingfisher had been coping. I placed my pop up chair hide down the bank and watched downstream towards some nice perches in front of my fixed hide which is still flooded. It was cold but I was doing OK. To get to the point, the female Kingfisher........ certainly the same one that I have been seeing since July, popped on to the perch after an hour and a halves freezing wait, she was on the perch for not even 10 seconds and I snapped off a quick picture of her before she hurried off. It's a blurred picture and not good but I am pleased to have got it to prove to myself that she is OK. It looks as though she had just had a good bath as she was very wet and bedraggled (as you can probably see). There's more to follow I am sure. There was a Grey Wagtail around me very often but just not close enough for a great photo although I took lots that were disappointing. A little Egret flew past and a snipe flew over my head. Some good prospects if I am prepared to suffer the cold conditions again.
Here is a nice Blue Tit from the garden this morning.
Its worth mentioning a short walk to my brook a few minutes ago. We have snow, which is unusual for this part of the world. After spending the morning trying to get "Blackcap in the Snow" photographs I decided to go and have a look at the brook to see if there was any noticeable signs of otter in the fresh snowfall. I am pleased to say that some very clear tracks were seen that came out of the water walked up with typical gait and then there is clear evidence that the animal slid down the concrete bank back in to the water. That can only mean that the otter was here this morning and after the heavy fall, very interesting. Then to my utter delight, I saw my female Kingfisher who I haven't seen since October, that's a very good sighting and I am thrilled. The usual Grey Wagtail was also around. I plan to go back later in the afternoon with my pop up hide, still cant get in the established one. The sun is going to be at my back andI hope to can get some shots of the Kingfisher. This will be great if she shows up on the strategically placed perch. I am confident!
Here's a picture of the Blackcap female, yet again on the apple which she loves.
Collared Doves are known to be early, perhaps "non-seasonal" breeders which is a big contributory reason to their successful colonisation of first western Europe and then the United Kingdom. Having said that, with most birds seemingly under threat from the icy conditions they have decided that there is no problem and are actually busy nest building this morning, carrying sticks up to a nest close to the house and high in a Torbay Palm tree.
I managed to get a few nice photographs today but it took a lot of patience and a degree of good luck. There are still lots of good opportunities around and the day dawned with a covering of snow. I had been waiting for just a day like this and when, quite early on I saw that there was a female Blackcap on the snow covered apple, I quickly got myself in position with a hot cup of coffee and loads of anticipation. The view through the camera was superb with the bright red fruit sparkling in the sun but for some strange reason, the Blackcap just would.t come back to the apple. Well, not while I was there anyway. M strategy was to just sit and wait, and hope that she would show up but in spite of three sessions of more than an hour, and it was cold, very cold........... she didn't pose for me. I stuck it out for as long as I could, giving in to the cold before the stiffness. Later on as I watched from indoors, there she was! Annoying to say the least because it is unlikely that she knows I am in the hide. I took a few photos from the kitchen which didn't turn out too bad after all. At almost dusk, the garden was suddenly invaded by a small flock of Britain's smallest, and in my opinion, prettiest thrush the Redwing. We have a berry laden cotoneaster bush which they stripped last year and it looks as though thats going to happen again this winter. Redwing are winter visitors and this time last year when we had bad weather they were noticeable in lots of suburban gardens up and down the country. So far it's just been Blackbirds and Redwing but last year we had an almost "full house" of the UK's Thrush species in the garden, the only species absent being a Ring Ouzel. The Redwing were posing really beautifully today. I carefully and quietly opened an upstairs window, rested the camera and took the best pictures possible given the available light, which was fading fast.
It was a lovely bright, crisp winter's morning yesterday, it was frosty and cold with clean clear air. It turned out that I was tied to the house after a very lucky escape when the springs and shock absorbers collapsed on the family car, if it had happened the day before, speeding down the motorway there would be no blog entries anymore! So the garden seemed a good place to concentrate on especially when I noticed 3 different Blackcaps feeding on the apple pieces. I set everything up and got close enough to the apple to use my 200mm Pentax lens which is an exceptional lens and takes great pictures. After a bit of a wait and a procession of Blue Tits, eventually a female came in to feed. I took this glorious close-up of her....... lovely!
The last couple of days have seen me attending to none wildlife matters. With the birth of my second Granddaughter on Thursday I spent most of Saturday doing what any grandfather would do. Then today we have been Christmas visiting. However, a quick check around the net has confirmed the presence of the Alphington Waxwing (just the one now), still in Chantry Meadow today. As well, there have been reports of a few other birds in other parts of the county. I notice that Torbay Hospital car park has got some and security are telling people not to use their cameras...... is that really necessary or am I just totally out of touch?
Telling the age of Waxwings appears to be quite easy and it seems that, as yet, I haven't seen an adult! Adults are much more extravagantly marked on the wings, with yellow markings, as well as white and the white marks on each primary feather extends across each feather to form a crescent whereas in a first year bird these wing markings stay on the leading edge of the feather only. Young birds do have however, the waxy red protuberances. Also males have a very broad yellow tail band and a very clearly defined bib which is less distinct in a female. When I see more, I will definitely be looking closer with a view to ageing and sexing them.
The last three days have been a glorious festival of Bohemian Waxwings here, almost in my own back yard. I hope to record and photograph the wildlife here in my village of Alphington and to have Waxwings with us to photograph has been a splendid opportunity. This species is a fascinating and beautiful bird with an almost mystical quality amongst the birdwatching fraternity. To start with, they are very smartly attired with silky smooth plumage and a crest that is unique amongst European birds. They are a subtle fawny grey in colour with a black bib and a mask through the eyes like a "highway robber". They have yellow markings on the wings and a waxy red protrusion on the primaries which gives them their name. Worldwide, there are 3 species that all look very similar. They have a preference for berries and particularly Mountain Ash or Rowan. The name Bohemian refers to their wandering habit and they are said to be irruptive. It is often thought that their occurrence in the UK is due to cold weather and, in truth, their appearance often coincides with unusually cold winter weather. But in actual fact, their wandering habit is a result of a poor berry harvest in their breeding territories which has nothing to do with cold weather . This wandering habit adds to their mystical qualities and the fact that they rarely arrive here in the UK in large numbers in consecquitive years means that they are always eagerly anticipated. In addition, they feed in a single minded way and pay little attention to the usual hordes of birdwatchers, photographers and other onlookers. What is fascinating about our visitors here is their choice of Rowan tree which is exactly the same one that they fed upon when they were last here in Alphington five years ago. This morning I watched one of the birds catching insects on the wing in a similar fashion to a flycatcher. This was a surprise but a bit of research shows me that they feed their young with all manner of insects and obviously suppliment their diet out of the breeding season with flying insects.
Yesterday was one that I will remember for the rest of my life! It's the day that my second granddaughter was born and the day we had Waxwings in Alphington.(again). Amazingly they are in a tree on one of the main thoroughfares through the village and in exactly the same Rowan that they were feeding on when previously seen here 5 years ago. They are an amazing spectacle and a real joy to watch and being so photogenic makes it even better. People are travelling from all the corners of Devon to see them and to think that they are right here only a few hundred metres from my house. Yesterday there were just 2 but this morning that had increased to a small flock of 5 and by lunchtime there were 6, possibly 7.
I have had a very busy day even though I have a serious bought of man flu! A went out to Turf this morning to try and get some shots of waders and of course the Snow Bunting showed really well again and I obviously took full advantage, getting some incredibly nice views and shots of it. I spent the afternoon either looking through my photos or getting my head down as I was feeling the worse for wear. Then during the evening I received a couple of emails telling me that we have had Waxwings right here in Alpington during the day. In fact just around the corner about 200 yards away! I have been dreaming of seeing Waxwings in my garden and who knows it may happen tomorrow. Then I thought it through, Alphington is going to be crawling with twitchers and photographers tomorrow, so I am hoping that peace will be allowed to endure and the birds have moved on before the scrum kicks off. Selfish I know but?
I have been waiting for the chance to photograph Waxwings here in Devon since the "invasion' began a few weeks ago. Then, as planned we went up north to Yorkshire on Tuesday and guess what, Waxwings arrived in Devon during my week away!!! Not to be out done though, on the way back to Devon we had always planned a stop overnight in South Wales and I thought this would give me my best opportunity, and this proved correct. Ebbw Vale is a little Welsh Village in the valleys. Waxwings had been reported "in front of the Leisure Centre" there and this was all I needed come Sunday morning. I know this part of the world a little having visited several times over the years so I climbed in to the car and made my way from Newport, full of enthusiasm. I arrived 30 minutes later after a snowy journey and immediately noticed a likely looking tree just by the main doors. It was a species of Rowan, or Mountain Ash, laden with lovely berries and I just knew that this was probably where they had been feeding. There was a Song Thrush and several Blackbirds feeding on the juicy fruit, but disappointingly, no Waxwings. Oh well, I had missed them again and I wasn't too surprised or down beat. I went in to the Leisure centre to use the facilities and when I came out........ there was a Waxwing, in the tree feeding just where I had imagined it to be. I rushed to my car for the camera and went back......... no sign of it! I have began to imagine that I had mistaken it but to cut a long story short, eventually I found them again, perched in a tree very close to my car now. I was pleased to watch them and take some photos as the rested in the tree and then fed again on the Mountain Ash. It could have been better in the photo department but I finished up with a few decent photos and I was quite pleased in the end. After a while, something called out and alarm call and they left in a small flock of 7 and disappeared out of view over the houses opposite.
I am sure that I will get the opportunity to photograph more Waxwings this winter. So far we have had a massive influx from the continent and as I said earlier, they have started to show up in Devon in small numbers, can't wait to see where next!
One of the nice things about this part of the world is the willingness of the wild birds to use garden feeders. I am sure that is because of the weather currently with us in the UK, cold for the time of year! It might also be due to the absence of natural food around and about. Already this morning we have had Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Long Tailed as well as Starlings, Blackbirds and a nice Robin.
Up here in deepest darkest Yorkshire, we are in the middle of the snowiest December since 1842! Honestly it doesn't seem that bad but it is cold, very cold and the snow is inches deep (but honestly no more). But in typical fashion we have the ability in the UK of making things appear worse than they are and then even manage to back it up with some statistics! We have had some nice bright weather here and there including a bit of blue sky. However what is unusual is the early snow and cold spell which,if it stays around for weeks or months will have a big impact on bird life. My son Tom has moved in to a new house with wife and baby in the last few days. I am glad that their garden is bordered with very tall, well established trees. I bought a feeding station yesterday and put out sunflower hearts and peanuts. Less than 24 hours later we had Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Long Tailed Tits on the feeder, a good result! Also seen were Dunnock, Magpies, Blackbirds, Starlings a Robin, Wood Pigeons and Carrion Crow. No Jays so far but they have been seen in the last few days. Waxwings were seen in Huddersfield yesterday morning so as soon as I felt able to use the car this morning, I went to the street that they had been seen..................... well you never know do you, but there was no sign of them even though I did find some very nice berry laden trees that they had probably been feeding on. So still no Waxwings for me yet!
If you have visited the blog over the last couple of days and wondered why there hasn't been any recent updates it's because I have been away to West Yorkshire. What's more, the weather is blizzard like with snow storms and drifts. Whenever I come up to this part of the world I like to take the opportunity to see a few species that I wouldn't normally encounter in the West of England. It is going to be hard to do this on this trip, we are snowed in. On Monday,before I left the almost balmy county of Devon, I had the opportunity to visit Berry Head near Brixham with Plymouth birder and photographer Phil Stidwell, a nice chap who takes and sees some good stuff. He had told me of this very confiding bird that would give me some really good photo opportunities. When we got there, as usual,I wasn't certain of finding it but I needn't have worried because we almost, literally stepped on it. It was feeding constantly and showed no fear whatsoever, the most easily approachable bird that I have ever seen. To cut a very long story short, I took lots of photographs and even though this one isn't necessarily the best it is a good representation of this lovely bird.