Thursday, 29 September 2011

Waiting for the rut

This morning it was my turn to go to Knole Park. (Rob went last Friday, while I took the cat to the vets). We're waiting for the Fallow Deer rut to start, but so far the deer are dragging their heels and today was the same story.

The does and fawns are sticking together in small groups. These two were part of the first group I saw, while the sun was still very low and things were pretty shady everywhere. They watched me warily as I plodded up the hill towards the house.

There was lots of avian activity up near the house, including a couple of Green Woodpeckers probing the ground for ants. For once they didn't mind me standing there taking photos.

Overhead, many Jackdaws, Carrion Crows, Woodpigeons and Ring-necked Parakeets were going to and fro.

Walking away from the house along the ridge towards the golf course, I found this burly Fallow buck strolling around his patch, munching grass and looking far from combative. I don't blame him. On a day like this (not even 8am yet and already t-shirt weather) I wouldn't fancy running about smacking my head against my rivals' heads either.

I took a right and walked back towards the house along the oak avenue. Here I found a quintet of Pheasants - both males had the same fawn plumage thing going on as yesterday's male. Now, of course, I realise that they are not aberrant birds but youngsters, still showing the remains of their juvenile plumage. I feel rather foolish.

Along the avenue I found a second big buck, lying right by the path. Walking this close past these musclebound, testosterone-laden beasts is a tiny bit daunting, but he showed no interest in me whatsoever.

I spent the next hour or so wandering around the vicinity of the house, photographing birds. There were a lot of Mistle Thrushes, drawing my attention with their machine-gun rattle of a call. The two above were having what looked like a flirtatious chase around.

Knole is a good site for Stock Dove, plenty of the many big trees have suitable nesting hollows. However, the doves are shy and flighty, making things difficult for the would-be Stock Dove photographer.

The soaring temperatures brought out what few butterflies are still around. The edges of the bracken stands held a number of Small Coppers, including this scruffy individual.

I saw dozens of Ring-necked Parakeets, which are thriving here for the same reasons as the Stock Doves. Some were alone, others in small gangs. All were noisy, their shrieks now a key component of the Knole soundtrack.

Here's a photo of a Chiffchaff in flight. Now, that's not a sentence I ever expected to be typing. It's not going to win any prizes but I include it for the novelty factor. With its hills and open spaces, Knole is a great place to hone bird-in-flight photography skills.

There were lots of Jackdaws feeding on the ground near the car park. I knelt down to photograph this one, which seemed not to have noticed me, so preoccupied was it with examining the ground at its feet. It just kept waddling closer and closer, until it was too close to fit in my lens.

There were at least eight Pied Wagtails foraging around the car park, maybe looking for picnic remains ground into the sand. From time to time they would fly up into a small tree and have a rest and a preen before resuming their patrols.

Noticing the time, I reluctantly began to head homewards down the slope. I paused to check out a small bird bouncing around on top of a rotting stump. Nuthatches had been calling all around through the morning but this was the first one I managed to see.

I was trying to get closer to a perched Stock Dove when I (almost literally) stumbled across a third Fallow buck. This boy was just chilling in his scrape, and gave me a look that said 'take photos if you must, but don't come any closer because I really can't be bothered to stand up'.

I paused for a sneaky sit-down on a stump by the exit gate and grabbed a shot of this flyover Nuthatch.

Just as I really, really was about to leave, this doe and fawn came rushing across the valley. They stopped for a moment in the shade, before moving on into the deep cover of the wooded bank.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Bough Beech and SWR

On Sunday afternoon, we went to Bough Beech, racing the gathering clouds. That's about all there is to say about that. Well, I did take a few photos, but it was very quiet, and nearly everything was out of range.

 As ever when visiting a reservoir in early autumn, our fingers were crossed for an Osprey. No luck but there were three Common Buzzards sailing around.

The water levels were super-low, and there were a fair few birds congregating around the channel by the causeway, including a very close Little Egret. However, it flew before we could head in its direction, so I offer a Grey Heron instead.

On the other side of the road, there was very little water, just a winding ditch lined with Teals. The drakes are almost out of their eclipse plumage now.

We walked down to the visitor centre, looking at the feeding station on the way. Empty feeders, no birds. There was this Red Admiral on the apple tree, desperately trying to soak up some warmth before the sun disappeared for the day.

The pond behind the barn was no longer a pond but a lush grassy field. The pathway alongside it was closed, with a sign up saying that some habitat development work was underway and also, excitingly, there were plans to build a hide here. That should be really good.

The sun was gone but we bought icecreams anyway. Heading back to the car park, we found a female Southern Hawker whizzing about over the ditch that connects the reservoir to the pond that's no longer a pond. I tried in vain to take its photo while Rob made sarcastic remarks about my lack of skill, then I handed him the camera and he failed just as miserably. We did enjoy some point-blank views of the little beauty though, before she lost patience and zoomed away.

And so to today - the second still, warm, cloudless day of what looks to be a true Indian summer. Rob has a new lens, so we went to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve to test-drive it. He had to go straight off to work after a couple of hours so I haven't seen his photos yet but here are some of mine.

I'm quite impressed that I managed a sharpish shot of this Blue Tit at the feeders by Grebe hide - it was very early and, according to my camera, too dark for proper shutter speeds.

We went to Tyler hide, pausing briefly at the viewing mound where we saw a Kingfisher plunge into the shady water directly below, then disappear into the trees on the island. Not too much to see from the hide - a few Black-headed Gulls, Teals, Lapwings and Cormorants. A lone Snipe.

A trio of Pheasants came wandering into view. This female was on the mainland in front of us.

Over on the nearest island was another female, and this unusual-looking male whose plumage was liberally sprinkled with pale fawn feathers.

We went on to Willow hide, nearly colliding with the same or another Kingfisher that belted across from East lake to the river in front of us. From Willow hide, the lake was prettily sunlit, with Gadwalls, Coots and Mallards drifting about. The resident Mute Swans and their full-grown cygnet were on the far shore. All rather so-so, but a lot of new ducks were arriving which kept my camera busy as I tried for flight shots.

These arrivals were all Mallards at first, and then a trio of smaller ducks with white wing-flashes appeared. They were two Wigeons, in company with a male Gadwall (which couldn't quite keep up).

A closer look at one of the Wigeons. Both were males, still with mostly eclipse body plumage.

A series of agitated whistles drew our attention to yet another Kingfisher. It flew in and landed in the large willow that takes up most of the central island. Here it sat in the shade, pretty much out of reach of my lens. I watched it for a while, but got distracted by these scrapping Moorhens.

I therefore missed the Kingfisher making a dive. It came up empty-billed and landed on a slightly more photogenic branch of the willow, but decided it didn't want to stick around for a photo-shoot.

And that was that - it was time to go. We walked back, just pausing long enough to grab a shot of this quizzical-looking Dunnock, and to admire from a distance a Nuthatch in trees behind the visitor centre.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Settings and tinkerings

Friday was a lovely day. I went to visit Sue for the evening, stopping off at Dunorlan Park as it's on the way. There was nothing much to see besides the usual parkland birds but I took the opportunity to play around with my camera settings and see if I could get sharper in-flight shots.

My models - lots of Black-headed Gulls, adults and juvs. I really should have checked back to see how the Common Terns got on in the summer, they have gone now. Anyway, I think my tweakings have paid off, but I'll need some more demanding subjects to be sure.

I also tried out some close-range stuff. I couldn't get a clear view of this Woodpigeon without actually getting into the lake with it.

 A sunlit Moorhen. I realised the other day that we don't have many nice Moorhen photos, a situation which is, frankly, unacceptable.

When the subject is practically at your feet and moving about a lot, getting any of it in focus can be tricky. I was aiming for this Greylag's eye, as the rule book says I should, but ended up with a load of bill instead. Still quite like the pic though.

Several of the young Black-headeds were passing the time by playing with fallen leaves in the water.

Another young 'blockhead' in flight. I just spent a while tinkering around with this shot to get a more blurred background, see below...

Not too bad for a quick job? Actually I think I prefer the original after all that, but it's fun to play around with editing techniques.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A couple more from Shoreham/Rodmell

This is really just a post to see what the new Blogger posting interface is like, but to make it interesting here are a couple of Rob's pics from our recent trip to Shoreham (that's the one by the sea, not the little village near Sevenoaks) and Rodmell near Lewes.

He was using his new 70-180mm macro, which is a really nice lens (and so it should be, it wasn't cheap (actually, it WAS cheap for a secondhand copy)). This Wall Lizard tolerated a pretty close approach.

And here's Rob's take on the female Common Darter we found on our short walk at Rodmell. This close-up shows very clearly the yellow stripes down the legs, which distinguish this species from the otherwise pretty similar Ruddy Darter.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Afternoon at Oare

Yesterday was a sort of sunny day, except when it was absolutely lashing it down. You know, one of those days. With a fairly fresh breeze into the bargain. We went to Oare in the late afternoon, after a quick trip up and down the Elmley access track where pretty much all we saw was a Brown Hare pretending to be a cowpat.

There was no space to park by the flood, so we parked at the end and walked back - I was rushing ahead, eager to get to the viewpoints before the sun disappeared behind an impressive bank of thick and lumpy greyish orange cloud.

Approaching the flood, I could see that there were very large gatherings of Golden Plovers, Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits, gathered in three separate clusters. Something upset the Golden Plovers and they all went up (along with a few Dunlins) and did a circuit of the flood before returning to their original spot on the muddy spit.

Most of the Black-tailed Godwits were in a long straggly line off the biggest island, but a few were feeding nearby.

This one had a fair amount of bling on its legs. I also saw another with rings plus a little yellow flag thing.

Two gorgeous Little Stints materialised on the right side of the central spit. They were teeny tiny in my viewfinder despite being quite close. They didn't stay very long, but flew off to the far end of the spit.

As the sun started to vanish, something spooked the Avocets. I never saw what it was. Or maybe the Avocets just decided it was time to go, because most of them didn't come back. En masse, they made a great spectacle.

So, to recap. Lots of Blackwits, Avocets and Golden Plovers. Also plenty of Redshanks and Lapwings. A smattering of Dunlins. A single Ruff. A trio of Ringed Plovers on the nearest island. Very little wildfowl - a few Teals and these two Mute Swans.

The Ringed Plovers decided to leave at this point. The sun seemed to have gone for the day, and we were struggling to get any images at all, but we stuck around a little longer. A few terns drifted over, including a Sandwich Tern that settled on the far end of the nearest island. A volley of exciting whistles heralded a fly-by Kingfisher. A Kestrel hovered over the big island, causing precisely zero anxiety among the resting waders.

After about 20 minutes' wait, the sun did reappear briefly. There wasn't much close at hand for it to illuminate, but I thought this adult and juv Black-headed Gull looked really nice.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Red(-breasted) Herring

The fact that it took me more than two weeks to mention this Red-breasted Goose at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve indicates how little faith I have that it's anything other than a fence-hopper. Nevertheless, it's a lovely-looking bird and was the highlight of our visit on Sept 3rd. That, and another meeting with the rogue grey cat (first mentioned here:, who is now sporting a collar tag reading 'Not lost, visiting from Riverhead'.

I went to the reserve again this morning. It was a gorgeous start to the day, cloudless and still. I went straight to Carter hide but found it occupied by other would-be Kingfisher photographers so decided to leave them to it and went on to Willow hide.

Before I got there, I found this very recently fledged baby Woodpigeon and its parent sitting on a stump. The adult flew when it saw me but the youngster stayed put while I took a couple of quick shots.

One of the nice things about blogging my sightings (given that I was never very disciplined about keeping a conventional birding diary) is having the means to compare stuff from year to year. Reading back, I see that last year's first Wigeon was on 25 September. This was the only interesting bird on view from Willow hide. Where are my Green Sandpipers?

My trigger finger wasn't playing ball today. Among the photos I was too slow to get, or messed up completely, were an in-flight Great Spotted Woodpecker, lots of Stock Doves and lots of Chiffchaffs. Maybe I should stick to ducks. This young Tuftie was on West Lake, where I also saw (at a great distance) a Great Crested Grebe carrying a very small chick on its back.

It's spider season. I saw some humungous Garden Spiders in my dad's garden in Hastings at the weekend. Don't know who built this web, but it looked pretty with a bit of backlighting.

Back at the centre, I sat for a little while at the wildlife garden feeding station, having heard Nuthatch and Coal Tit calling nearby. Both came down but I only managed to photograph the Nuthatch. What a pair of feet!

Various birds were zooming about in the trees around the car park. I got a nice surprise when I took a closer look at this one - a juvenile Bullfinch. Evidence of nearby nesting, and my first photo of this species on the reserve.