Monday, 30 August 2010

Sandwich and Oare

Sandwich Bay Obs had an open day yesterday so we went down for a look. It's actually quite a long way to Sandwich and given Rob's poor getting-up skills we weren't underway super-early. Got there about lunchtime, I guess. It was a very breezy day, quite cloudy too. Not much for me and the BigMac to photograph - everything below is Rob's.

We had a nose around the obs building, lingering by a selection of moths in little plastic pots. Some I recognised (Garden Tiger, Poplar Hawkmoth), others I didn't, but a friendly bearded moth-man came along and told me what they were, and let me hold one of the Poplar Hawkmoths until he (the moth) started doing warm-up wing-buzzing, then it was time to quickly put him back in his pot.

We went down to the nearest scrape, Restharrow, joining a few other birders in the hide there. It was rather quiet birdwise, but presently this Little Egret breezed in, settled in a near corner and began picking its way towards us along the waters' edge. It was actively feeding and doing that entertaining leg-jiggling thing to try to get the aquatic delicacies moving.

While everyone was busy watching and photographing the egret, this small duck punted past in front of us, much closer than the main group of distant Teals. I gave it a second glance and realised it was a Garganey - check out that lovely double face stripe. I managed to tear Rob away from the egret to grab a couple of frames before it paddled out of view.

Meanwhile, this cute juv Little Ringed Plover (the only wader around) was pottering towards us on the large central island, and eventually got near enough for some recognisable pics. Not sunlit pics though, sadly. In fact the cloud was really closing in.

We went back after that, and got in the car moments before the downpour began. We went to Oare, really at my insistence, even though it was really blattering down hard within minutes. However, the forecast had said this would happen, and not to worry because it would all be fine later. And so it was - when we reached Oare the rain had ceased and the sun was breaking through the thinning clouds. It was still very, very windy though.

Oare was stuffed with stuff. At the pull-in there were hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits striding through the belly-deep water. On the muddy 'pier' were a handful of Golden Plovers, starting to moult their summertime black bellies.

We'd not been there for long when everything went up - clearly a raptor was around. Peering through the swirling mass of birds, I finally discerned a pointy-winged outline - not the Peregrine I'd expected but a Hobby, which seemed to be hurling itself very fast at godwits, gulls and other unsuitably large fare. Then I got onto its real target - a Starling, frantically trying to veer out of harm's way. The Hobby made a breathtakingly close grab for it, missed and then it was over - Hobby going one way, everything else the other.

There it goes. There are always mixed feelings when you witness a near miss - relief for the victim-that-wasn't, and sympathy for the hungry hunter. The Hobby went and sat down in a field on the other side of the road after this, and was still there when we left. Not even a bunch of Sand Martins whizzing a few feet above its head could rouse it to action.

Rob missed the drama of the Hobby attack as it was happening, but here's his shot of the aftermath. The birds settled on the opposite end of the flood after this, and that was pretty much the end of the day for photography.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Catching the sun

It's been one hell of a miserable week. Or a fantastic week if you're a fan of rain. Noticing the forecast promised sunshine first thing, I got up early, tried and failed to persuade Rob to join me, and headed down to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, arriving at about 7am when it was still too dark for either of the two lenses I'd brought (Bigmos plus the 180mm macro, which will henceforth be known as BigMac).

I shuffled slowly northwards and parked myself in the Willow Hide, where the sun was slowly turning the lake to greeny-gold, and watched a bunch of Coots, a few Gadwall (oh, they're back!), GC Grebes, Mute Swans and so on going about their business. There was a lot of exposed mud in front of the hide, but the only Green Sandpiper I could see was on the far shore and looked perfectly happy to stay there. I wandered back the way I came, wondering about staking out a spot by the North Lake.

Sitting by North Lake on my nifty rucksack-chair, I noticed a commotion in the trees opposite - Magpies plus a big brown bird. As all birders know, small brown birds are ubiquitous enough to have their own TLA - it's LBJ for 'little brown job'. However, if you see a BBJ, its usually something interesting. Or a Mallard. Or a Pheasant. Neither Mallards nor Pheasants are much inclined to chase Magpies through the treetops though. It was a Sparrowhawk, a young built-like-a-barn female, too far away for decent pics but she seemed settled for the moment. I decided to try the Carter Hide for a better view.

This is a tiny, four-person hide, looking across the northern edge of the North Lake. I settled in and scanned the trees - nothing. Then she flew out, giving me a brief, lovely view of her outline as she zoomed hard right, but no opportunity to point the Bigmos at her through the hide's narrow slots. Muttering swear words, I looked back in front again and nearly fell off the bench.

This Kingfisher had discreetly flown in to land on one of the two sticks positioned right in front of the hide, where it now sat and bobbed peacefully as I goggled at it. I managed to control my hysterics enough to fire off some shots.

It flew off but was soon back, this time with a fish. It chose an equally close but rather hidden perch on which to violently shake then swallow its breakfast. I was just edging to the corner of the hide for an unobscured view when two other birders arrived and scared it off.

It was obvious that this hide was, at least of late, THE place to photograph the local Kingfishers. Soon all four seats were full, and when a fifth person showed up, I left, happy with the pics I'd got (for today, at least).

I went back to Willow Hide and watched the Green Sandpiper some more as it pottered about, smugly refusing to even consider a jaunt across to the near side of the lake. Instead, this female Grey Wagtail showed up and showed off for a bit.

I switched to the BigMac after that, and started looking at insects. The sun was up properly now and it was becoming quite warm. Darters (Common and/or Ruddy) darted about.

I've never had much luck photographing hawker dragonflies. Maybe that's all about to change... this Southern Hawker certainly obliged with a prolonged rest in photographable view. A passing Brown Hawker was not so helpful.

Here's a scorpionfly. One of several I saw, and a male (you can tell by the bulgy thing on its abdomen tip). I am not sure whether I was looking at one or more species - this individual was distinctly smaller than the others I saw.

As for this... no idea. It wasn't the subject of this photo - that was an equally mysterious wasp species that I've cropped out because it didn't come out very well. Unlike Mr Gingerbum here, who looks great considering I wasn't trying to photograph him and had no idea he was there. Maybe I should try this zen photography thing some more. (Though presumably with zen photography there is no 'try'...)

ETA - one of my budskis on the RSPB forums has IDed Mr Gingerbum as a Large Rose Sawfly - Arge pagana. Thank you very much for that, Maria :)

A nice straightforward female Speckled Wood. Other butterflies around included Common Blue, Painted Lady, Green-veined White and a very tatty and exhuasted-looking Meadow Brown. I'll stop there for now, but Rob joined me later on and I'll probably add some of his pics after he's woken up from his afternoon nap...

 A couple of Rob pics. We had no further Kingfisher action from Carter hide, but these two pics show just how dreamy the light is here on sunny mornings - drake Mallard...

... and a reflective Grey Heron. From here there were also lots of pairs of joined-up darters dipping into the water, laying their eggs.

Unfortunately no return visit from the Kingfisher/s, but I'm going to make a return visit sometime this week. The Kingfisher sticks were still pretty shaded by the time we left (about noon), but I still think good shots (better than the ones I got today) should be possible.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A blog medley

Well, we've been out and about a bit lately but the birding/wildlife-watching has been an hour here, an hour there. So I thought this blog post could be a bit of this, and a bit of that. The first bit is me playing with the new 180mm macro in Mike's garden over the last week of my cat-sitting stint.

Mike's daughter had a beautiful sunflower growing in a pot near the kitchen door. One gloomy morning I noticed it had a visitor - this bush-cricket which I haven't got round to identifying yet. It had to be this small in the frame to fit in the full length of its ridiculous antennae.

The sunflower opened a few days later, and on another gloomy morning this hoverfly (I have IDed it this time - it's a Marmalade Hoverfly) came along to check it out.

At least someone enjoyed all that rain. Here's a Garden Snail and a little Strawberry Snail, off on an adventure together.

Just to prove you don't even need to go out to see great wildlife, I found this very cool plume moth (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla) on the window in the living room.

All aboard the grebe bus. While I was in Brighton, Sigma returned the Sigmonster to Rob, with a note saying 'no fault found'. He took it down to the local reserve to give it another test, and found two families of Great Crested Grebes - one with three and the other with four babies.

A drake Mallard in eclipse, either feeding very enthusiastically or coming over to reprimand Rob for pointing such a huge lens at him. Rob reluctantly decided the Sigmonster isn't for him, so we arranged to reunite it with its owner at the British Birdwatching Fair.

The day before we were planning to go to the fair, the Passat went in for its service, and we were resigned to a dull day at home. However, kind garage-man lent us an elderly Golf for the day, so we took it to Dungeness. We didn't see that much in our short visit, but it was nice to be falling over Small Tortoiseshells around the power station.

By the reserve car park, there were hundreds of Sand Martins resting on the shingle bank. We went over to try to get photos, only to see the whole lot rise in a panic - it wasn't us that upset them though but this juvenile Cuckoo.

Here's my lame attempt to capture some of the swirling mass of Sandies. At least the sky is a nice colour. We took a very quick walk around and dipped the Purple Heron yet again, but did find the Great White Egret, and saw a few Marsh Harriers.

We went to Birdfair at the Egleton nature reserve, Rutland Water, the day after. It was good fun, though the usual mad rush to see everyone. It was also raining heavily most of the time. One of the times it wasn't was while we were in the Harrier hide, enjoying a sneaky bit of birding with Jim (not many birds to see - distant Ruff, distant Reed Bunting, distant Little Egret). However, the racket of the fair is also distant from this lovely, peaceful spot.

We have said goodbye to the Sigmonster, though the Bigmos is back with us where it belongs (again, Sigma found nothing wrong with it). If a certain ebay transaction goes smoothly I'll soon be the owner of a used 300mm f4, for which I'll be buying a teleconverter or two.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Malling Down

It's been a while since the last blog post. I am currently in Brighton, staying at Mike and Kathy's house and looking after this...

and this.

Lacking a car and having lots of work to do has meant few photographic opportunities. Also, I only had the 18-200mm lens (aka the 'useless lens') with me... until Thursday. That morning I went to the post office to collect a mystery parcel and found it contained a 180mm f3.5 Sigma macro lens - a late and overwhelmingly wonderful birthday present from Rob.

I wasted no time taking it out in the back garden and trying it out on the various flies, spiders and snails I could find. Then this male Holly Blue showed up and sat on a leaf for ages. I took lots of photos of it, of which this is one.

Today I met Sue at Malling Down and we went for a stroll. It was a mostly sunny day with light breezes, conducive to butterfly-watching.

Malling Down looks like this. Nice, eh? But I'm getting ahead of myself - this pic was taken from up on the top (with the not-so-useless 18-200mm). On the way up we stopped lots of times to photograph the many butterflies and other stuff that was around.

It seemed that we were too late for Chalkhill Blues and too early for Adonis Blues. The Common Blues provided ample compensation. I was really pleased to find this blue-variant female, taking her time feeding on a thistle flower.

My favourite butterfly - a spankingly pretty Small Copper. The only one I saw, though I guess there must have been others. The habitat looked pretty good for them.

Silver-spotted Skipper! There were quite a lot of these about - 'locally abundant' would be the word(s), though they're still rare butterflies on the national scale. They were frustratingly difficult to follow in flight, when they look like buzzy dark moths, but the many clumps of Wild Thyme tempted them down to feed.

Sue had a go with the fab new lens, and took this lovely shot of a Seven-spot Ladybird walking about on my hand.

Other butterflies around included Small Heath (got pics, none of them great but here's one anyway), Brimstone, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown. The other stuff we saw included a noisy Buzzard, some Six-spot Burnets and an unIDed hawker dragonfly.

Post-walk, we met up with Michele and Mushu and had a drink at a very nice nearby pub. While we were there, a whole army (or maybe I should say orgy) of winged ants emerged from their nest. I attracted some puzzled looks and comments when I went over for some photos. Twenty minutes later the last stragglers had flown up to join the aerial bonk-fest.

Sue went home after this and Michele gave me a lift to Lewes station. As we packed our stuff in the car we noticed this dozy juvenile Robin on the verge, and I took several photos with the not-useless-at-all-really 18-200mm lens. It was a cutie but far too approachable - hope it gets some road-sense (and dog-sense, and people-sense) soon.