Friday, 31 July 2015

A tiny post from Pembury

I spent the 12-26th August at Imogen and James's house in Pembury, looking after this:

and this. Apologies to the non cat-fans. I can't help but love them, although they are not the most wildlife-friendly of pets...

My pals' road is one of the dwindling number in the UK that hosts a proper breeding colony of House Martins. In fact I wandered and ran around Pembury a fair bit and didn't find House Martin nests anywhere else. I really hope the residents know how lucky they are to have these great little birds nesting on their houses. Trying for flight shots on the (very few) sunny mornings I had was good fun and a good test for the D7200.

I've raved about the little pond here before. They had another bumper batch of tadpoles this year, and also Large Red Damselflies. Also the water lilies produced a single (but magnificent) flower.

A fast-moving Comma went through one day, but butterfly action was otherwise limited to white ones, like these two.

A bit of local birdlife. I didn't manage to get any of the Buzzards that occasionally overfly the garden, but here's a House Sparrow and a Dunnock, both juveniles, and a Swift which I guess is a local-breeding adult. I wonder if it'll be the last Swift in my blog this year.

The garden Foxgloves are long finished, but they still look quite nice in seed-pod mode.

And now, more about those cats. They aren't exactly rampant killers but over the two weeks they did bring in four Common Frogs. All were very much alive and kicking, in fact one was doing breast-stroke kicks as whichever cat brought it in thoughtfully dropped it into the water bowl. They also brought in a couple of moths, which I rescued. And one other thing, which was a great surprise and the 'creature of the week'.

After spending such a long time trying to photograph a Brown Hawker at Sevenoaks the other week, it was quite a surprise to be presented with one by a smug-looking cat. The dragon, a not-quite-mature male, was quite undamaged though a little traumatised at being dumped on a kitchen floor. I picked it up and carried it upstairs, where I did a one-handed lens change, opting for the 50mm rather than the macro as a) light was awful, it was a really gloomy day and b) I figured a smaller lens would be easier to manage for one-handed photos. I took some shots indoors and some more outdoors. The dragon meanwhile alternated clambering over my hand, vibrating his wings, and just sitting still staring into space. It was wonderful to be able to examine him at such close range - a fabulous creature indeed, more so than any CGI 'real' dragon IMHO.

I couldn't persuade my new pal to fly off - to be fair it was the sort of cool grey day that most dragons would spend doing nothing anyway. So after I'd taken sufficient pics, I hung him up in a tree in the garden, well out of kitty reach. Hopefully he was safe there - it was warmer the day after so that would have enabled him to fly away.


Saturday, 11 July 2015

This one's a keeper

OK, I have given the D7200 a bit more of a workout and I am getting more impressed with each click. This morning I spent about 20 minutes pointing it at the House Martins flying over Imogen and James's house (I'm cat-sitting for them at the moment) and the results were my best ever photos of House Martins.

Yesterday I took it up on the downs and introduced it to the BigMac, and I'm pleased to say that camera and lens got on pretty well. I've only prepped a few photos from yesterday - ran out of time! If my netbook can cope with the D7200's files I may add to this later.

So, the downs. Early start on a clear sunny morning with light breeze. I knew Marbled Whites were out and these were my main target. Chalkhill Blues are apparently NOT out round here yet, and though I saw a couple of Dark Green Fritillaries racing through at 100mph I managed no photos of them. So the Marbleds were the only 'new' butterflies, but they were so abundant and obliging that it was well worth the couple of hours I spent here.

As you can see, Greater Knapweed was flavour of the month. Most of the Marbleds I saw were feeding, and a few were likely egg-laying in the grass. They were not out-of-the-box fresh but still mostly looking very good.

There were plenty of Ringlets about, many looking quite worn. I saw one pair in cop but couldn't get very close.

Meadow Browns were also much in evidence, especially down the path on the other side of the fence at the bottom of the hill.

This path also produced a Comma and several Gatekeepers (all males) and some faded Large Skippers.

Other butterflies seen were good numbers of 'Smessex skippers', a single Small Heath, a couple of Large Whites and (on the roadside path before you reach the reserve), one Small Tortie and one Painted Lady.

I did point the camera at some non-butterflies too. I can't put a name to the crazy green spider or the hoverfly yet, but the dragon is my first 2015 Common Darter and a nice surprise, well away from any water.

I met Phil Sharp (of Sharp by Nature fame) as I was starting to head back. He'd just arrived - sensible chap to leave it a bit later! We passed the time of day for a little while and then went our separate ways - he, I was to find later, managed to track down some slightly more obliging DGFs, on the part of the reserve over the hilltop (which I've yet to visit).

I decided on the train back to make the most of the sunshine and go on to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. A bit of a foolish idea really as I'm STILL suffering from Saturday, but actually I spent most of my time there standing (or sitting) still, trying to photograph a fantastic male Brown Hawker at Long Lake.

The hawker was sharing his patch with a male Emperor, occasionally tussling with him. Both dragons were in territorial mode, ceaselessly patrolling the water and waiting for a female. My attempts to get the autofocus to lock onto the hawker were total failures - the BigMac is not exactly quick to focus, and I hadn't brought the 300mm f4. After watching for a while I realised that the hawker was often flying into the inlet where I was waiting, and I decided to try manual focus, following the brown blur as it got closer, then firing shots off as it moved into focal range.

This frustrating exercise mostly went like this - track approaching dragon, fire five to seven shots, review them, delete them all, repeat. I carried on for something like an hour and a half, by which time I thought I'd managed at least some OK pics.

I have not had time to check all the pics on my big screen but these two seem to be the best. I am pretty chuffed with myself and with my camera. One of the lovely things photography does is show you moments that your own eyes never could, and to see this gorgeous dragon well lit and in full flight is a bit of a treat.

Another treat (though not photographed because it was all too fast) was to witness what happened when a female Brown Hawker showed up. She knew that he was there and visited for one obvious reason. As soon as she appeared he flew at her and 'linked up', and the two fell together towards the water in a frantic clatter of wings - the engagement lasted three seconds at most. She then flew off - though on one occasion actually paused to oviposit a couple of times in the water right at my feet. Being in manual mode I couldn't adjust in time to photograph her (she didn't hang about). One thing I did catch (albeit blurrily) was the male refilling his sperm stores after a couple of these encounters - he did this in flight and didn't slow down at all as he curved his abdomen tip under himself to pass sperm from primary to secondary genitalia. I did get pics of a female Emperor ovipositing - typically for Emperors she took her time, ignoring the mobbing damselflies all around her.

I also saw lots of damsels including Red-eyed and Banded Demoiselle, and other dragons included a Ruddy Darter and a Black-tailed Skimmer. The feeders by Grebe hide were busy with pristine young Blue and Great Tits and their half-bald scruffbag parents. Photos of some of these may follow later if I get time. I saw a Grey Wagtail by West Lake, and a Sparrowhawk circling over Long Lake. Oh, and two Kingfishers went past while I was photographing the Brown Hawker. It's a measure of how hooked I was on the dragon that all I thought was, 'Kingfisher. Meh.'

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ahoy, skipper

On Sunday, which was a mostly lovely sunny day, I went over to Teddington to see Susan, Paula and Clive, and to have a walk in Bushy Park. This is unusual - we are more likely to be found running round Bushy Park than walking. It was a bit of a treat to take my time, take some photos, and visit some of the more tucked-away parts of this very large area of parkland.

I was a little physically compromised - suffering from a bad case of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) from the day before, when I did my black-belt aikido grading (I passed!). Kneeling down to take pictures was pretty much impossible, which meant I didn't give my new camera as much of a workout as I'd have liked. Yes, new camera - I have bought a D7200. I've been waiting for ages for a proper update to the D300 - ie a pukka semi-pro DX body - and there's not been one, but I read enough good reports about the slightly lower end D7200 to convince me I needed to give one a try. My verdict to come at the end of this.

The park is looking lovely, with nearly all the grassland allowed to grow through the summer, and this has encouraged a huge population of Small Skippers. I have never seen so many, anywhere, it was an absolute delight to see them in profusion wherever I looked.

Actually though, the first ones I photographed were not Smalls but these two Essex Skippers, sharing a little Creeping Thistle flower. It's perfectly possible that there were loads more Essexes, but all my other photos show Smalls.

Like this one. A female Small Skipper, she's laying an egg in the roll of a grass blade.

A Carrion Crow, with a monkey-nut. Where did it get that, I wonder? Birdlife in the open parkland was a bit sparse - a few Green Woodpeckers and overhead the odd Ring-necked Parakeet.

A walk along an irrigation ditch revealed several Banded Demoiselles, sadly impossible for me to photograph as they were too low down, but we were to see more later on.

We reached the fenced-off Woodland Gardens and here Susan and I parted ways with Paula and Clive as canines are not allowed in this area. We'd not been walking long up a shaded trail along the edge of the gardens when we found ourselves surrounded by small birds, which were flitting about calling constantly, and were very hard to lock onto in the leafy and shady conditions.

The one clear shot I managed of a juvenile Long-tailed Tit. This bird (and its siblings) will have been out of the nest for some weeks now and foraging for itself, though still staying in the family group. It's looking rather scruffy as it begins its post-juvenile moult.

Great clumps of brambles by the path were well attended by skippers and Meadow Browns, and my first Ringlets of the year.

We came out into a more open spot, where there were some very picturesque small ponds. Beside one such pond I spotted this pristine fresh male Gatekeeper basking in an unfortunately inaccessible spot, hence shonky shot.

Nearby, and even more inaccessible (and hence shonkier shot) was this Comma, which I presume is a newly minted summer brood individual.

Continuing with the brown/orange butterfly theme,  a Meadow Brown.

A trio of Small Skippers showing off their angles. The largest of the lakes was fringed with flowers including many Creeping Thistles, and these were so skipper-filled it was ridiculous.

There were damsels around the water of course, including these in-cop Blue-tailed Damselflies. Nice light, shame about the depth of field.

There were also many demoiselles, at least one Beautiful here but the majority were Banded, like this one.

A few Mallards were drifting languidly about on the lake. I was taking pics of this one when I noticed that she was eyeing the skies in a slightly anxious manner, so I followed her gaze...

... and there was a Common Buzzard floating overhead, already virtually out of camera range.

This lake had lots of lily-pads, which I scanned for Red-eyed Damselflies but found none. A few Water-lily flowers were out and looking lovely.

It turned out that there were two bits of Woodland Gardens, and while Susan went off to find Paula and Clive, I explored the second one. Pretty much immediately I found this corking male Beautiful Demoiselle, who sat nicely for precisely one photo before flying up into the trees.

The path here follows a fairly small channel of water, which eventually opens up into a biggish lake. Here I found this confiding young Grey Heron.

This Coot nest was on the same stretch of water...

... as was this Mallard, well on the way to full eclipse plumage. He and many others, plus a couple of females, were loafing around, preening their fast-changing plumage and generally being the picture of relaxed contentment, a far cry from the hormonally charged sex pests they would have been a couple of months ago.

Carrying on, I found a female Mallard with a brood of small ducklings.

And even more babies - part of a large brood of Egyptian Goose goslings.

I'd reached a busier area now, with many picnicking families, and some Jackdaws stalking about among them, looking for scraps.

I reached the end of the Woodland Gardens and rejoined the others, under skies now looking a little foreboding. We decided to head home.

At some point on the way (or possibly not, I can't remember when I took it) we saw this smart shiny ground-beetle, which I'll try to ID at another time.

And I couldn't leave without at least a few shots of the star residents, the Red Deer. This stag was having a meditative chew, and showing off his full-grown but still fully velveted antlers

So, about this new camera. I bought it with a view to selling both my D300 and D700 if I like it, and most particularly if I like how it goes in low light. Its cost new is only a little more than I should get from selling the other two bodies. BUT I am not sure about it yet. It feels less solid than the D300. It's a bit more plasticy and it lacks certain things eg a protector for the LCD screen. In use, I really noticed the slightly slower frame rate when taking some (unblogworthy) bird in flight shots. I was also quite annoyed to find that I couldn't process the RAW files it produced without installing a bunch of new software. Picture quality and noise levels at high ISO are an improvement on the D300 but I'm not sure if they are enough of an improvement. The shutter is quiet! The files it produces are very large so I'll be able to crop more and still end up with a printable image. I need a bit more time with it though before I decide what to do.