Thursday, 30 September 2010

An arty post

I've done a bit of painting and drawing lately, some of which will go in the new book (there's a chapter on sketching and artwork). Here's a sneak preview...

I did this Meadow Pipit gouache painting for a friend, and the original is in the post to her as I type.

Also done for a friend, a watercolour male House Sparrow. There might be a bit of gouache in there too actually.

A foray into mixed media - this Whinchat was done in line and wash, with a bit of coloured pencil for good measure.

A quick-and-dirty pastel painting of a Sika doe. Not sure I like this. Maybe it should have been less quick and more dirty.

Line drawing of a Four-spotted Chaser, in which I forced myself to do some proper cross-hatching for the shaded bits rather than just, well, scribbling.

Banded Demoiselle pencil sketch. Scanned this in as a 'colour picture' and the paper's come out pink, but I don't really mind.

Another quickie - Sparrowhawk in watercolour.

 Baby bunny in pastel.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Rob finally made it to Cliffe Pools RSPB for a brief post-work visit on Saturday, and reported that he'd seen 'nothing much'. Given the state of the tides when he went I wasn't completely surprised, but I had a rootle through his memory card and found a few items of interest.

First up, this Little Egret. Going by the sequence of photos, it flew briskly up to him then struck a series of bizarre mid-air poses for him as it went by. Rather like my little niece when she spots someone with a camera (apart from the mid-air part).

A flock of waders, which Rob photographed 'because they were there', not realising he was bagging a new species for the blog. They're Greenshanks, IDable by the solid dark wings, pale heads and bodies, and rather heavy-looking, medium-length and slightly upturned dark bills among other things.

And a flock of roosting waders, which I checked eagerly for anything that wasn't a Redshank or a Lapwing (or indeed a Coot) to no avail. Lovely evening light on them though. Imagine if it was high tide and there were another 1,000 waders of 30 different species in this photo...

The light had almost gone by this point, but just enough remained to furnish this Lapwing with some gold highlights.

I hope Rob can be persuaded to return to Cliffe another day when there's a high tide to push the waders off the river and onto the pools, but the days are rapidly getting shorter...

We have booked our tickets for the 'Skua and Shearwater Cruise' this coming Sunday. I should have finished the current book by then (the writing part at least) so it should be an up-cheering experience all round.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Odds and sods

It's been a sad week for Team Wildside - our lovely cat Pickle was put to sleep on Friday. She will be very sorely missed.

Rob went to work today at the Chatham site and took his camera with him, so fingers crossed there'll be some photos from Cliffe Marshes later on. Meanwhile, here's what I saw at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve this morning. It was sunny but chilly, with a bit of a breeze up.

From Willow hide, not all that much to see (no Kingfisher, no wagtails, no Green Sandpipers) but some of the Teals had obligingly come quite close to the hide. Check out this young lady's excellent speculum.

Over on the far bank were more Teals, plus one non-Teal - an eclipse drake Wigeon. Now there's a sign of impending winter if ever there was one. I thought I'd have to make do with a very distant record shot as the Wigeon appeared to be fast asleep on the bank, but then he woke up and swam a little bit closer, allowing for a slightly less distant record shot.

On leaving Willow hide, I paused by the path to attempt to photograph Long-tailed Tits in awful light. Why? Why do we do these things to ourselves? Anyway, it sort of paid off this time when I noticed a Treecreeper making its way up a nearby trunk. I only ever seem to see these fantastic birds when I've stopped to look at something else. Unusually, it didn't slip around the back of the tree and I got a few photos, mostly blurry because of poor light and camera shake. Still, they're my first vaguely recognisable Treecreeper pics so I'm happy with that.

On the way back I decided to walk the West Lake loop for the first time. It's a narrow path, close to the shore, and shrouded in vegetation most of the time. You do get to go quite close to the half-submerged tree favoured by roosting ducks (Tufties and Pochards) and Cormorants. I met several parties of Long-tails on the way and managed a passable photo or two.

I took a look at both feeding stations before heading home, and at the second one was rewarded with a nicely posing Dunnock, after missing a chance at a Nuthatch.

Overall, it was very quiet today. No sniff of a Kingfisher, no warblers (apart from Chiffchaffs), no waders, no raptors. One lonely House Martin heading south. Still a few darters on the wing, plus one Comma and one Speckled Wood. I suppose when autumn kicks in properly we'll start to see some new stuff. Meanwhile, I'm hoping we can go away next weekend, so watch this space...

Oh, forgot to say - new teleconverter arrived on Friday. So maybe it wasn't as out of stock as they thought it was!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Knole in September

I set the alarm for 6.30am today and set off for Knole Park. It was just getting light - the streetlamps were winking off as I went by, and sunshafts lasered through the trees down on Seal Hollow Road. First surprise of the day was that the 'hole in the wall' door into the park had been replaced - gone was the semi-rotten one and in its place a spanking new affair with a fancy locking mechanism. Nice.

Knole being very hilly, much of it was still in shadow when I arrived, hence this somewhat Serengeti-esque Fallow Deer shot.

Many of the does had fawns in tow, quite well-grown now but not beyond needing the occasional deer equivalent of a cuddle from Mum.

As usual, there were lots of Green Woodpeckers about, probing the many anthills and flying off with peals of laughter whenever a hapless photographer with no teleconverter got within half a mile of them. To get good Green Woodie pics I'll have to either sharpen up the fieldcraft - a lot - or find somewhere else to photograph them.

But Jackdaws - now you're talking. This one flew in a big lazy loop within comfortable photographic range, then did it again in case I'd missed him the first time. Besides the many Jackdaws, there were also plenty of Jays in the park, most of them busily ferrying acorns to and fro.

Close to the house, a party of Mistle Thrushes was moving about between the trees. I think there were five of them. They 'rattled' to each other as they flew, but without the same machine-gun force of the anti-predator rattle they produce in the breeding season.

There was some evidence of migration. About 40 Swallows went over in dribs and drabs - all the ones I got a look at seemed to be youngsters with no long tail streamers. I heard the reversed 'weehoot' call of juvenile Chiffchafffs in a few places, and heard one Willow Warbler delivering a very hesitant and melancholy song.

Not a migrant. This handsome boy was strutting about close to the house, and was quite unperturbed when I walked up to him and started taking pictures. Unless that's an expression of shock and outrage.

The park is full of Ring-necked Parakeets, shrieking away and flying among the treetops on those long falcon-like wings. I did take sharper photos than this but I really like the mad tail action.

Smaller birds were around but difficult to photograph. I saw and heard numerous Nuthatches, a couple of Great Spots, the usual tits and finches and several Pied Wagtails, one of them furiously seeing off first a Skylark then a Meadow Pipit. When the leaves drop things will get a bit easier. It will also help when I have my teleconverter... but since they just called to let me know it's currently out of stock, I guess I'll be waiting a while longer.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Town and country

I worked til early afternoon on Sunday and then could take no more, so we went to Tonbridge to see Michele. The weather was supposed to improve, so we hung around at hers drinking tea and glancing at the leaden sky from time to time but it remained resolutely un-sunny. Soon it was time to take Mushu the dog for her post-prandial walk.

Down by the castle, there were a few people feeding the ducks and pigeons. This Grey Squirrel wanted a piece of the action too but was a bit reluctant to descend from the safety of his tree.

Looking across the river to a rather nice garden with a riverside frontage, Michele noticed this male Red-crested Pochard on the bank among the many Mallards. He was fully winged, as he demonstrated when jumping into the water.

What a state. The bouffant orange hair-do should grow in properly over the next few weeks and transform him from ridiculous to magnificently ridiculous.

Back in Michele's front garden, a wildlife drama was unfolding - a hefty Garden Spider preparing her packed lunch. Rob set up the BigMac on a tripod for a few photos but he's still not happy with them. With this kind of shot, any slight breeze can ruin everything. I think it looks pretty good though. You can just make out the poor wasp's face - sinister stuff.

We went on to Haysden Country Park after that for a mini-walk. It was by then 5.30pm and the light was bad, to say the least, but it was nice to look around a new area even though it was rather quiet, wildlife-wise.

This country park contains lakes and rivers, and is pretty much overrun with Himalayan Balsam, a colourful, pungent non-native (and considered invasive) plant with a very effective seed dispersal method. When ripe, the pods explode violently at the lightest touch, scattering seed over the local area.

We noticed several insects visiting the flowers and burrowing into the bucket-like bits at the back. They were unusual-looking things, with a pronounced silvery sheen on their uppersides. Keen to ID them later, I took a few pictures.

It looks like a bee. It looks a lot like a Honey-bee in fact, apart from the silvery fluff on its thorax...

... but hang on. This one looks like a wasp! Then the penny dropped. It is a wasp, and the first one was a bee. The silveryness is Himalayan Balsam pollen, and plenty of it. No wonder these plants are so successful at quickly colonising new areas.

At Haysden Lake, there was little to see. I walked out onto one of the little wooden pontoons to check out the view, and gave this young Great Crested Grebe a fright when it surfaced just a few feet away from me. Scanning the more distant waters revealed a few more GCGs, a mix of adults with fast-diminishing head-dresses and stripy-faced youngsters.

On the way back I took a few photos of the many House Martins feeding overhead. Extremely poor light + very fast and small bird + massive crop = rubbish photos. This was one of the least rubbish, which isn't saying much. Among the House Martins scythed a single, very late Swift. I managed two pics, in which it somehow looks like a mutated flying goose.

As we got in the car, I noticed a splendid male Great Tit on the wooden fence, hungrily eyeing what looked like a Scotch pancake on the top of a nearby bin. I wound down the window and he came over to the bin to do battle with this large and awkward prey item. The light by this point was really minimal, giving me about 1/100 sec at maximum ISO, but by bracing the camera on the window frame I managed a sharpish pic (on about the 40th attempt).

Oh, Rob didn't make it out of bed this morning in time for his planned pre-work trip to Cliffe, so that will have to wait for another time!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Back at SWR

A sunny, though chilly morning, and Rob and I spent a few hours at the reserve. I was mainly after photos for the current book, and Rob was mainly after Kingfishers.

Arriving at the Willow hide, we were immediately treated to a perched Kingfisher (in a willow, appropriately enough). It was beyond the reach of the 300mm but Rob took some pics with the Bigmos. We were told that it or one of its friends had been visiting the perches in front of the hide lately, but not today.

I amused myself by pointing the 300mm at flying birds. It focuses much more quickly without the teleconverter, and though the reach is quite limited, the resultant photos could be cropped pretty damn hard without losing too much sharpness.

First up, a Stock Dove. I've seen them flying about from this hide before but never tried to get pics til today. Some say this is Britain's most boring bird species. Others don't, because they have never noticed that Stock Doves exist. That's a bit harsh actually. They are attractive in their own way, and pleasingly distinct from any of the million variants of Feral Pigeon.

Next, a Jay, complete with acorn. Jays are widely credited with planting new oak woodlands, as they bury acorns for winter consumption but inevitably some get forgotten and germinate.

These two Shovelers did two circuits of the lake. I didn't get any sharp pics of them against the water, but managed a bit better when they were against the sky. This isn't such a massive crop, as they actually came quite close.

I left Rob to it and went down to 'Reed Warbler corner'. No Reed Warblers any more, they have left, but I did hear a singing Cettis. Then, after a tense wait, I got a brief view of this surprised-looking male Blackcap, before he slipped away into the dense foliage.

 I don't know if this is the same Comma I photographed the other day. If it is, it was in a much more show-offy mood today, which was nice.

I also found an adult Green Shieldbug on pretty much the same leaf as the nymph of last week. Must look up how quickly they grow up... Decided to go for an alternative angle for this shot.

Meanwhile, back at the hide the assembled watchers had a second sighting of the Kingfisher. This time it wasn't sitting around but was whizzing over the water. Here's one of Rob's pics...

 ... and here's another. They were taken one second apart, according to the file info.

We had to go after that, but close to the visitor centre we paused to enjoy good views of a scruffy Chiffchaff as it flycatched (flycaught?) and leaf-gleaned in a sunny clearing.

 Maybe this is his best side, actually.

Rob is planning to call in at Cliffe Pools in the morning. I hope he has a successful time, if so there should be a Rob-tastic blog post coming up soon...

Oare what?

Sue and I made a quick midweek visit to Oare on Wednesday morning. I have only just got round to writing about it...

The tide was out, way out, so there wasn't that much to see. One thing we did see was a bunch of Spoonbills on a sandbank across the Swale, recognisable because they were a) big, b) white, c) tall, and d) someone had told us they were there. It was a scope situation though, there was really no point attempting a photo.

There were waders scattered about on the mud. The closest one was a godwit, but not a Bar-tailed as I'd expected but a Black-tailed, uncharacteristically feeding on salty mud when a thousand or so of its friends were the other side of the sea wall, behaving like normal Blackwits and walking about in the Flood.

It soon saw sense and flew back inland, obligingly going right over our heads to reveal its wingbars and an almost complete lack of secondaries.

Strong winds (as usual, really) kept avian activity at a low level. We found a Wheatear on the path, and a Yellow Wagtail or two, but I couldn't get close enough for good photos. On the flood there were a few Avocets and Ruffs with the Blackwits, and a couple of Snipe zoomed out of the marshy edges.

One of the few birds that did fly within camera range was this fine Great Black-backed Gull. Not much to say about it apart from I wouldn't want to be in the way of that bill.

The feeding waders had moved closer to the road when we went past again. This Ruff was playing hide-and-seek with me, and my camera (or rather the teleconverter) was playing silly buggers again. I was lucky to get any pics at all...

The teleconverter has gone back to Warehouse Express for replacement now. Hopefully I'll get another one soon... meanwhile I'll have to cope with a mere 300mm!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Power cut forces birding trip

Today we had no electricity for three hours. This wasn't actually a power cut - there was a man downstairs replacing all the electricity meters. As it wasn't (quite) raining when he switched ours off, I decided to go down to SWR.

There was the same mix of stuff around as there was over the weekend. I am going to try not to be too boring and post different species to those that I posted last time...

... except for this one. This Green Sandpiper was on the near shore, and made its way to within a few feet of where I sat in Willow hide before suddenly noticing me and my camera, and flying off with a startled volley of squeaks. I was dismayed that I'd scared it, but it was already making its way back in my direction by the time I left the hide.

There were a few insects in evidence when the sun was out. One of the less obvious was this immature Green Shieldbug, confident in its camouflage as it relaxed on the upper surface of a nettle leaf.

I took a rare walk down to Long Lake and was so moved by the beauty of the lake when the sun hit it that I... CHANGED LENS and took a few scenic shots. This is probably the prettiest lake on the reserve, though not the most wildlife-rich. I flushed a young Grey Heron when I got here, but saw no other feathered life.

It wasn't a complete blank though. I was happy to see this Comma, even though it wouldn't open its wings for me. There don't seem to have been huge numbers of Commas on the reserve this autumn.

Back at Willow hide, a new species showed up - a small flock of Teals which flew around in a circle before landing rather a long way across the lake. This was the best shot I got. At least it shows off that lovely green speculum.

There were two or three each of Grey and Pied Wagtails foraging on the mud in front of the hide. This one stood out with its peculiarly peachy chest, probably the result of waddling in water full of iron ore.

Add to this - one fly-by Kingfisher, a metric shed-load of Chiffchaffs and the usual backing cast. It still counts as a great trip, because of that very photogenic Green Sandpiper.