Monday, 21 December 2009

First blog from the new PC. And, moreover, the first Linux one. Wooooo! (let's see what goes wrong...)

The booksigning at Dungeness in mid-November was pretty quiet. I was extremely quiet as I was in the grip of a heavy cold, so cut a rather pathetic figure sitting at the desk surrounded by unwanted books and blowing my nose every few minutes. Luckily I was next to the big window so had the chance to scan the main pit for birds.

Before we went in, we had a quick look at the first hide and found two Peregrines. They didn't come very close but one put on a fine flying show while the other sat incongruously on one of the small shingle islands.

I saw several Marsh Harriers flying about at the back of Burrowes Pit, close to where they roost. None of them wanted to turn into a Hen Harrier, alas. On the water paddled numerous Coots with attendant Gadwalls. There were apparently a couple of Goldeneyes on the pit but they didn't come anywhere near where I was. A fast-moving dark falcon flickered past - not one of the Peregrines this time but a female Merlin on a mission.

While all this excitement was going on, Rob went off to the ARC hide in search of egrets (Great White and Cattle both there apparently), Bitterns and Penduline Tits but didn't have overwhelming success. He did photograph an egret but its yellow socks marked it out as a Little. I liked this pic of assorted gulls, most of them GBB.

He did get lucky in the end with a flying Bittern, not very close but nicely lit in the afternoon sunshine. It pitched down into the reeds after this and Rob took more photos but they show nothing but reeds :(

When my signing shift ended I called Rob who said he was in a field photographing Glossy Ibises. I hotfooted it down the driveway and spotted him stage left, pointing his camera at the two ibises which were stalking about beside a huge puddle. They looked like giant Curlews, decked out in deep bronzey plumage. They (like everything else today) weren't very close so no jaw-droppingly great photos but views through my bins were great - what brilliant birds. Here's one of them.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Rainham Marshes

The first of my book-signing trips was to this frankly awesome reserve on what was once a forbiddingly desolate and scary bit of East-end wasteland (though even then great for birds if you had the cojones to go there). Unfortunately the weather was a good deal less awesome - blowing a gale and periodically flinging down bucketloads of chilly rain.

We had a little walk before the signing began at noon. The feeding station was teeming with hungry Greenfinches, Goldfinches and House Sparrows. Just beyond that we found Mr Stonechat obligingly posing on one of the few bits of scenery that wasn't being thrashed about by the wind.

Rob glimpsed a mustelid disappearing into the undergrowth on the trail. Given that he at first called it as a Rabbit I decided it must have been a Stoat on size, though I didn't see it myself despite much encouraging pishing. Dammit.

Around the small pools and ditches were numerous Wigeons, Teals and Canada and Greylag Geese, while a lively flock of Starlings strutted about in the rough grassland, taking flight and moving a few feet further down whenever the trail took us too close to them.

Then I had to go back to the visitor centre but Rob continued and did the full loop around the reserve, finding on his way a few more birds including a similarly obliging Ms Stonechat:

... and a Cormorant flapping low overhead, creating an impression of what it must have been like for our ancient ancestors when a pterodactyl cruised by almost low enough to interfere with the power lines (or something).

After the signing was done (13 books signed, not bad for such a filthy day) we nipped down to the far end of the reserve to see if we could find the Serins (we couldn't) and photographed what at first we thought might been a Jack Snipe in the reedy pool near the Serin mound (it wasn't). By 3.30 pm it was pretty much dark so we headed home. According to the very friendly and helpful Howard Vaughan, the Penduline Tits will show up in early December if they are going to (only one blank year in the last six or so), so I can see us being back at Rainham before too long.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Butter wouldn't melt

... because it's November. It's been quite mild but very rainy and windy. It was especially r & w on Sunday, when we went to Rainham Marshes for me to sign copies of this:

We did see a few birds (and Rob saw a mustelid, probably a stoat, the lucky sod) but the photos are still in the camera. So for now, here are some butterflies to take our minds off the fact that it's winter (nearly).

Here's a White Admiral, photographed on our holiday in Sauternes in June. One of my favourites, they have a gorgeous nonchalant grace in flight and are entertainingly territorial.

Equally protective of its space - a Comma, waiting for another butterfly to go past so it can start a fight. Its ragged wing edges match the fiercely toothed margins of its nettle-leaf perch. This one was taken on the banks of the Medway near East Peckham (a lovely walk, great for Nightingales).

It's bedtime for this male Common Blue. In the right place and at the right time of year you could see dozens of them perched face-down on grass heads like this - they bask with wings open in the last of the sunshine then shut up shop when the sun goes down. This one was on his own at Ditchling Beacon in the South Downs - it was late in the year though.

We did leave the butterfly-watching rather late this year. This Brimstone was photographed at Pulborough Brooks on the same day that we saw (but alas didn't photograph) a Brown Hairstreak, which don't fly until mid-August. He's fueling up for a long hard winter of sleeping in a clump of ivy.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Sika and you shall find/Fallow the leader/other awful deer pun

Yesterday morning we went on a short pre-work deer-photographing trip to Knole Park. It was a beautiful crisp sunny morning, which took away the sting of having to pay a quid for parking as the ticket machine 'does not give change' and'does not accept bronze coins'. Gits.

Knole Park is Kent's only deer park. There are allegedly Red Deer here but I have only seen Sika and Fallow and have explored it pretty thoroughly on many occasions so I think that's a terrible lie. The Sikas and Fallows (far more of the latter) range among rolling hills, some grassy, some cloaked in bracken and some wooded. In many places there are loads of anthills, indicating a) ants (specifically, Yellow Meadow Ants) and b) ancient, unimproved grassland. Oh yes, and c) lots of Green Woodpeckers.

The Fallows' rut should be pretty much over but there was still a distinct 'harem structure' going on with most of the groups we saw - a bunch of does and one big buck, with the younger bucks wandering about on their own. At other times of year the guys and girls stay in separate groups, but now's the chance to observe some interactions between the sexes.

The Sikas spend more time lurking in the woodlands than the Fallows, though they're actually more approachable. Both species are still wearing the remains of their spotty summer coats, though both will lose the spots and become more boring-looking over the next couple of months. If you're not familiar with the two species, they can be tricky to identify. Males with well-grown antlers are easy to tell apart, the Fallows having broad, flattened 'palmate' antlers, the Sikas sporting a more conventional narrow 'tree branch' style. Otherwise, one good way of telling the two species apart is assessing 'bum slopiness'. Fallows have an angular backside with the tail base aligned with the back, Sikas a gentle curve with the tail base lower than the line of the back. Also, see the white oval patch on this Sika female's hind leg, just under the ankle bend? That's a Sika thing and is very distinctive. I love field marks like that, which seem not so much part of a pattern but an anomolous bit of colour like a bright sticky label that says 'Sika'. Another example is the black underwing patch of the Grey Plover. (Actually, I think the Sika 'hock blob' is a scent gland. Maybe the same is true of the Grey Plover's armpits...)

We were only in the park for an hour or so but saw a few nice birds as well as the deer - Green Woodies, Mipits, Siskins, Long-tailed Tits, Ring-necked Parakeets. Oh, and this lovely li'l lady by the gate as we were leaving... hopefully we'll have a mild winter and a better Goldcrest year in 2010.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Norfolk, part 2

Some more pics from our October week in Norfolk...

Titchwell was a bit quiet, perhaps because there is some serious earth-moving work going on around the fresh and salt-marsh areas. It was extremely nice to see this family group of Bearded Tits, albeit briefly. Actually, that's a pretty unconventional family if it is one - that's... four adult males there? Or maybe the youngsters get their adult plumage super-early.

The beach was ace. Great Crested Grebes being all macho out on the waves, Red-breasted Merganser briskly flying west, dead Gannet among the razor-shells on the tideline... And lots of waders - Knots, Barwits, Curlews, Dunlins, Grey Plovers, Oystercatchers, Turnstones and everyone's favourite - Sanderlings. Show me a birder who doesn't love Sanderlings and I'll show you a heartless and soulless shell of a birder.

We took the seal boat out to Blakeney Point on the last morning to ogle some seals. There were about 10 of us on the boat, plus boat driver and two small, lugubrious dogs. One of the dogs hopped off the boat just as we were about to go - obviously not the plan because the boatman hollered at her to come back immediately.  She returned, lugubriously, and off we went. En route our boatman did some more hollering, first at a couple in a motorised dinghy thing who were apparently going too fast, and then at a different couple who were enjoying a picnic on the Point, way beyond the 'no access' point. Naughty humans. The seals were relaxing on a sandy beach on the far side - a couple of Commons but mostly Greys. We drifted in slow circles in front of them while everyone took lots of photos. Some of the seals seemed rather suspicous about this...

... while others had a more phlegmatic attitude.

 On the way home from Norfolk we called in at Minsmere to twitch the Great White Egret, which was far too distant for a decent shot. The weather was dire by this time. Nevertheless, Rob took some acceptable photos, including some very close female Teals...
... and a flyby Bewick's Swan.


Monday, 9 November 2009

On binless birding

I'm just back from Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. For all my wistful longing to live by the sea, having this very good reserve of woodland and water just 20 minutes' walk away is pretty sweet. Early sunshine was promised so I took the D300 and Bigmos, and left my bins at home. An experiment, I suppose.

The lakes were shrouded in photogenic mist, which softened the outlines of the Coots and made them look exotic and interesting. Besides Coots, there were Gadwalls, Teals, Tufties, Shovelers, Lapwings, gulls and geese. From Tyler Hide I photographed what was probably a Snipe, and had I had my bins there would have been no 'probably' about it but it was just too far away for the Bigmos. (A zoomed-in look at the photo later revealed that it was indeed a Snipe, and moreover there were three more Snipes in the frame as well). Had I not been sitting in the hide at the time I probably wouldn't have bothered to even lift the camera. That was, I found, the key difference between birding with bins and birding with a DSLR+huge lens. The camera gave me epic back-ache. Holding it up soon gave me epic arm-ache. Therefore I just didn't pick it up unless I saw something within photographable range. As a result, I saw way fewer birds than usual. (To add insult to injury, the few photos I did take were not very good. I like the zigzag reflections of these Shovelers but it's really a fairly horrible photo. Other, potentially better pics were spoiled by overexposure, which is my fault for failing to RTFM.)

In the hides, it was great. Especially Willow Hide, where Teals and Gadwalls were feeding around lots of exposed mud very close at hand. Walking about, I hardly photographed a thing, because I kept accidentally switching off the AF and I was too slow to unlock the zoom mechanism. Practice would help with all that of course, and more gym visits with the heaviness issues, but I really missed my bins and there's no way I could carry both on a decent birding walk, am just too much of a wimp. A landscape or macro lens, maybe... a 150-500mm - nope. I have a renewed appreciation of Rob's sterling work with the camera, and that of other bird photographers.

If birders became reproductively isolated from the rest of humanity, I think there would be a strong selective pressure in favour of bigger, stronger physiques. Anyone born with an extra arm or two would have a massive advantage. Give it a few million years and we could see birders effortlessly carrying scope on tripod, DSLR with huge lens on another tripod, 10x42 bins, easel and paints, emergency wellies, a comfy chair and a large packed lunch. Until such time as the ability to locate, identify and photograph problematic Locustellas and Phylloscs becomes a factor in human reproductive success, I suppose we will have to rely on the optics companies to carry on making things smaller, sharper and more powerful. Cheaper would be nice, too...

Anyway, the reserve was good today, with wildfowl numbers building up on the lakes and lots of passerine activity - for example heard numerous Siskins and there were parties of Long-tailed Tits all over the place. Next time it will be bins and sketchpad all the way.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bough Beech, today

What's this? Sunshine?

Rob-being-on-call woes meant we didn't get out til 1pmish, and he said he wanted to go to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve but then drove straight past it and it became clear we were heading for Bough Beech.

The drive down here is lovely, a narrow hilly hedge-edged lane with views now and then into woodland (home to furtive Fallow Deer - the real, wild deal or at least closer to it than the cossetted Knole Park ones) and across scrubby grassy open hillsides. You get a glimpse of the shining sheet of reservoir from one such bit of the lane, then nothing more until you drive onto the causeway.

The water was as low as I've seen it, exposing lots of mud either side of the causeway, with a narrow channel connecting the main bit to the little offshoot on the other side. On the main reservoir there were numerous Black-headed Gulls in and by the water, a few Lapwings on the shore and assorted badly-lit wildfowl. On the other side - almost nothing, just a couple of Pied Wags and a Mipit exuberantly bathing in the shallow water. The hedge by the causeway had Dunnocks and Wrens in it.

We headed for the visitor centre/feeding station bit, pausing on the way to point the camera at an extremely vocal Goldcrest, perhaps wondering where all its Goldcrest pals had gone (there hardly seem to be any around at the moment). Then onto the feeding station, where many Blue and Great Tits rubbed shoulders at the nut and nyjer feeders with Chaffinches, Greenfinches and at least one Coal Tit and one Nuthatch. A couple of Moorhens were munching from the large pile of apples under the feeders, while a flock of Fieldfares, for whom those apples were probably intended, made chicken noises and flew about but refused to come very close. There were Redwings about too, but they were even more eager not to be seen properly. The main feeder is a bit too distant for decent photos, but there is a closer one, attended by numerous Blue Tits.

We got a brief look at a long-tailed apparition as it zipped overhead to the feeding area, cutting a strange figure with wings completely tucked in as it boinged over the hedge. The hysteria its arrival caused among the little birds suggested it was a Sparrowhawk, and it actually obliged us by landing briefly on a clear (albeit distant) perch before bombing off to its next hunting opportunity. I missed the cause of a subsequent similar disturbance because I was distracted by a small wader flying past, whose dark upperparts and neat square white rump said 'I'm a Green Sandpiper'.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sunday 18 October

OK, so it's not 18 October any more, but what the hell, I'm feeling nostalgic for two-and-a-bit weeks ago. Things seemed so much brighter and full of hope then. And Rob and I were enjoying a day out at Cley Marshes, birding Mecca, on day 1 of a week's holiday in north Norfolk.

The day kicked off with terrible views of a Cetti's Warbler lurking in a bush and (as is their wont) refusing to be photographed. Marsh Harriers cruised over the Phragmites and little gangs of Black-tailed Godwits swept purposefully overhead.

Views from the three thatched hides that form the centrepiece of the reserve were typically great. Wigeons, Teals, Shovelers, Blackwits and Ruffs held sway, all doing their respective things in or on or next to the water. Some great halfway-out-of-eclipse plumages were on show among the wildfowl. Look at the state of this Wigeon.

A 50-strong flock of Pinkfeet whiffled in, joining a few Greylags on the muddy bits at the back of the middle lagoon. Among then was a grotty Canada x Anser something hybrid. Normal Canada x Pinkfoot, or 'small' Canada x Greylag? It seemed to prefer the company of the Greylags, not that that counts for anything in the tarty world of geese.

We followed the West Bank to the beach, and headed east in search of the 'highly mobile' Snow Bunting flock. Just beyond the East Bank about eight flitted past in a flurry of pretty white wings and jingling noises. They did some coy to-ing and fro-ing then dropped down around the bank and got busy among the scrubby, shingly vegetated bits. Rob lay down and commando-crawled over to take a few hundred photos.

A passing birder very kindly told us there was a Purple Sandpiper down at the water's edge. And indeed there was. Rob lay down (I've just worked out why Rob likes bird photography - it's all the lying down) ahead of its trajectory and the obliging little wader trundled right past him at almost point blank range, pausing to look at interesting stones and bits of flotsam on the way.

The walk back along East Bank brought close views of a Little Egret having a bad plumes day. From the hides, we added Snipe to the day's list - several out mixing it with the Blackwits in deep water and one settling down for a snooze at the water's edge. By now it was nearly 4pm which is near enough dinnertime so we went to Sheringham and ate fish and chips on the beach.

(nothing to do with what's above - I'm putting this photo of a Keeled Skimmer here because I want to upload it to another website...)